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461: Tactics for Boosting Productivity and Banishing Distraction with Erik Fisher

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Erik Fisher says: "You can't get everything done; not all the time, not every moment."

Erik Fisher shares tips and tricks to optimize your productivity without driving yourself crazy.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Tricks to reduce your smartphone dependency
  2. The small habits that create big results
  3. Why it’s okay to not get things done

About Erik 

Erik is a Productivity Author, Podcaster, Speaker, and Coach. He talks with real people who practically implement productivity strategies in their professional and personal lives. You’ll be refreshed and inspired after hearing how others fail and succeed at daily productivity and continue to lead successful and meaningful lives.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Erik Fisher Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Erik, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Erik Fisher
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m super excited to dig back into the goods. And I want to hear, you know, it’s been a couple years. What have you learned about productivity in that time? Or is there anything new you’d picked up or anything you decided you’ve abandoned, like, “Hey, on second thought, I don’t like that idea anymore”?

Erik Fisher
Oh, my gosh. Things change and yet, at the same as things are changing, they stay the same. One of the key things for me is, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but there’s a lot of people who’ve come out with, say, like, daily or weekly analog, meaning handwriting-type planners, you know, chucking the digital system, if you will. And, for the most part, I like that idea. I like working in analog. There’s something very satisfying to that.

A friend of mine, he’s like, “Hey, I have a digital planner and I use my Apple Pencil in it,” and I’m like, “Okay, cheater.” But, for the most part, I have still stayed digital in terms of my list and my projects and things like that. But I have gone to almost completely 100% paper books.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, interesting. So, no Kindles or e-books of any sort.

Erik Fisher
Now, I have the ability to do it and I will still look at articles. Like, I do have an iPad, the latest version, the 11-inch Pro, and I really like it. I use it for content consumption and I don’t turn it and use it like a laptop or anything like that. I like that it’s not a desktop or a laptop or a phone. And by leaning into using it that way as a tablet, a digital window interface, whatever, to all my documents and things like that, whether it’s work-related or consumption-related, reading articles. I lean heavily into that and then, by doing that, I feel like that ease of use, of using it as a multipurpose tool like that, I then don’t spend as much time on my phone. You know what I mean?

Because if we constantly have that thing on us with all that stuff with us at all times, we feel like we have to use it all the time. And I’ve been trying really hard to get my time spent on phone down because the majority of the time that I’m spending on it, I found, was very unintentional passive use that was just eating into my time.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, that’s intriguing right there. So, you’ve made a conscientious effort to reduce time on phone and you’ve seen some positive results in doing so. Could you maybe quantify that a little bit for us in terms of where were you before, and where are you now, and did you do anything else that made a real big difference in helping with that initiative?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, so a friend of mine also was noticing this and not only that, but having read Cal Newport’s most recent book that he came out with, Digital Minimalism, and talking with him for my show, we both said, “Hey, you know what, what if we went for like…?” So, the period of Lent comes up and we decided to say, “Well, what if we just…? Like, we can’t quit our phone and not have it on us, but what if we quit using our phone for every little thing, and just see what we can get away with?”

So, we sat down together and we started cataloging all the different apps. It was kind of a challenge between the two of us to see how many we could offload or delete, and what was the bare minimum of installed and active apps we could have on our phone, and how far we could get with doing that. And it was amazing because, after having done that –

I have an iPhone. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the iPhone’s ability to offload an app. It means that you can remove an app, the app will stay there and your credentials, and you’d be logged in and all that, but you have to click the download button again, and it then fills in the hollow shell of an app that is sitting there with all the content again. So, effectively, you can’t use it without re-downloading the app, which is like a safeguard or a boundary from you using the app again.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it sort of keep all the info that you’ve stored about your login and your historical data, but it’s not kind of taking up any space, and it’s a little harder to get to because you’ve got to spend that time to re-download it.

Erik Fisher
That’s exactly right. So, effectively, yes, the shell of the app is there, the inside of the app is not there except for, again, it maintains all the logins and things like that. So, we went through that and we checked in with each other about three days in, and we said, “How much time are you using it?” I was like not even carrying my phone with me at that point. I have my Apple Watch on me, and I would respond to a text through that, and phone calls, I would still do those. Are people still doing phone calls? Yes, they do.

Pete Mockaitis
Or text me first.

Erik Fisher
Yeah, exactly. And I just noticed that suddenly I wasn’t reaching for it every 5 to 10 minutes to check something or look something up, etc. And that’s not to say I wasn’t allowed to look something up somewhere, like on a desktop, or even on my iPad, but I wasn’t allowed to do it on my phone. And by breaking the phone being on me and ever-present and always able to be dove into as this dark pool of information that I could always access—you just don’t understand!

Like, when you have that on you at all times and you can always jump in, then you constantly will. And because you constantly will, then you will even when you do or don’t want to. And so, it’s really about cutting way back to the point where, then, it’s almost like, think of it as a digital diet metaphor for a physical diet. It’s like you can enjoy the stuff that is bad for you on occasion as long as you’re not eating it constantly all day every day, which is what we are doing digitally.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well-said. I like that. And what was so cool is you made it sort of like a challenge and you had some accountability there, a buddy, and you sort of reframed, I guess, what triggers your reward centers in your brain. It’s not like, “I am so powerful because I have so many apps, I can do anything.” But rather it’s like, “All right, let’s just see how disciplined I can be and how winning is now reducing apps instead of having more apps and feeling powerful as a result of having those apps.”

Erik Fisher
Yes, exactly. And then, of course, the time period was over when we could add apps back on. And, honestly, it was like, “Well, wait a second, I just never came back.” There were months later where I would suddenly be looking for an app on my phone, I’m like, “Wait. Didn’t I have that app?” And I realize I had never put it back on, and it had been months since I’d last used it, so why was it on there? “Oh, just in case.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And that slows you down too. Like, the actual, I don’t know a ton about how all this hardware devices worked. But it seems like in my experience, generally speaking, the more stuff you have installed, the slower things run. Is that fair to say for the phone as well, the number of apps?

Erik Fisher
Potentially. I think Apple would say, “No, no, there’s nothing different with it. Buy the biggest one and install as many apps as you want. There’s an app for everything.” I don’t know. I would say here’s the thing, that means you have subconsciously maybe a need to organize all those apps in different places so you’d know where they are and have the ability to use them quickly. So, in other words, it’s digital clutter on the phone that you then have to deal with, which is also taking up time, mental RAM.

So, all in all, I came out the other end and I started using my phone a whole lot less. And, even to this day, I use it more but I think I cut way back. Again, I need to do a revisit, not maybe as drastic or strategic. But, again, one of the things that I was doing was there were certain apps, like the weather app, where I realized, “You know what, I can offload it on my phone but I can literally lift my wrist on my Watch and the weather is right there.”

And so, it’s different. It’s a different feeling. In other words, it’s a different – what’s the best way to put it? It’s a different meeting of a need. In other words, that’s the thing, I think, I’m trying to get at here, is you have to be careful about how you’re meeting certain needs because, then, you start to rationalize everything as a need.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, it feels that was a big lesson that could be applied to a lot of things.

Erik Fisher
Yeah. So, you can rationalize doing your email on your phone. And some people were like, “Wait, what’s wrong with that?” And I’m like, “Dude, you have no idea how doing email on your phone can become this thing where you’re always doing email on your phone and then switching over to, “Oh you’re texting, switching over to listening to a podcast, switching over to…” Do you see what I’m saying? Like, switching over, switching over. Like, you are sitting there, hunched over with a horrible posture, and/or walking and talking, and doing something. You are basically tricking yourself with that phone into thinking you can multitask. And, again, you can. You’re just task-switching and you’re bifurcating and fragmenting your attention.

And, actually, that was the biggest thing right there was just this calm sense of, “I don’t have to reach for anything on that phone because there’s nothing there I am missing out on at this moment,” unless a rant, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s beautiful in terms of describing that feeling and transformation and how that unfolds, so that’s cool. Well, hey, that’s what you’ve learned recently, and I appreciate you sharing it. Last time, we talked a lot about energy management being key to productivity, and so I want to cover some other pieces of productivity goodies from you this time.

I did a big listener survey, and a lot of folks were bringing up distractions, whether that’s internally from you’re tempted to go do email, or check your phone, or whatever, or externally, in terms of folks dropping by your desk, saying, “Hey, Erik, you got a minute?” or whatever. So, I’d love to get your take in terms of what have you found, in your own experience and from interviewing so many people, are really the best practices for maintaining clarity and focus?

Erik Fisher
So, I’ll refer you back to what we just talked as being a huge factor in that, first and foremost.

Pete Mockaitis
Just managing that phone, yeah.

Erik Fisher
Managing the phone and as well as what the phone is doing to you. Because if you feel like you need to reach for your phone when you’re sitting at your desk constantly, then you are effectively training yourself that it is okay to pick it up over and over and over and interrupt yourself, let alone weaken your ability to deal with any of the other stuff that are thrown at you from external.

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. So, you’re actually harming yourself, you’re weakening your capacity to resist distraction because you are continually giving in.

Erik Fisher
That’s exactly right. Like, if at any moment you ever feel slightly bored—like my kids are saying—or hungry, or whatever, and you decide to go do something mindless, or go walk into the kitchen and open the refrigerator, it’s like opening the refrigerator door. Like, if you train yourself that that’s okay versus having something prepared that you know is your “snack for the day,” then there you go, then you’re going to go pull out, I don’t know, fill in blank here, of what you should not be having as a snack, you know?

So, the more you train yourself to go the opposite direction or the way you should go in terms of your habits, you just find it easy to get distracted. So, first and foremost, that’s number one, with the phone, because it’s tied in to that. Then, number two, in terms of distractions, gosh, there’s a couple of different things that I have found that really, really helped. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned the system, the audio system that I use, last time, that helps with eliminating distractions.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it Focus At Will?

Erik Fisher
It is Focus At Will. Well, I have changed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. There we go.

Erik Fisher
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have a lifetime membership to Focus At Will but I’m not using it. I found one that I like better and it’s because it does multiple things. It’s not just focusing yourself. It has to do with brainwaves and the sound of the “music” or the—

Pete Mockaitis
You quote music. Strong praise, right?

Erik Fisher
Well, that’s the thing. Yeah, because technically it’s not music. It’s a—

Pete Mockaitis
Sound.

Erik Fisher
–Composition. Right. And so that’s the thing. But, that said, it’s still you don’t get into it like, “Oh, man, I love this song,” kind of moment because of listening to it. And if you did, then it wouldn’t be working because it would be distracting you because you’d be like, “Oh, man, I love this song.” It’s called Brain.fm.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Erik Fisher
It can do all of those stuff we talked about the Focus At Will can do. It eliminates the blinders, sorry, it puts up the blinders so your flight and fight mechanism kind of gets lulled into sleep. Essentially, it’s backed by science. It gets you to a place where your brainwaves are in position to hold focus stronger and longer when you’re doing work. And not only that though, it can also be used for meditation, or calming yourself down, or even sleep, so you can listen to it, take a nap and get a better sleep/nap by using it.

And by having that extra stuff and having it, again, I’m not talking bad about Focus At Will, but Brain.fm, which is leaps and bounds ahead of them when I found them almost a year ago, that I signed up immediately. And, in fact, they gave me like codes, not a code but a link, to let people get like 20% off for their whole first year, and people have been loving jumping on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Are you allowed to, are you able to share this in a public forum?

Erik Fisher
Yes, I can.

Pete Mockaitis
You can’t do this to us, Erik.

Erik Fisher
I gave it a pretty link so that it would be easier for people. So, it’s BeyondTheToDoList.com/brainfm.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, that’s intriguing. I mean, I love…well.

Erik Fisher
And you’ve used Focus At Will before.

Pete Mockaitis
I have used it and I appreciated what they had, but I also had kind of found a focus playlist I created, and I thought, you know, in a way it was almost because my focus playlist had gotten so many kind of repetitions of, “Oh, hey, it’s time to focus.” I listen to the focus music and I focus, that it’s kind of like ritualized and accelerated the process of having sound focus me. So, that’s kind of why, in my particular instance, the Focus At Will almost had enough hill battle against an incumbent. But what you’re saying here is, “Hey, Brain.fm does more than just that.”

Well, if we’re talking about me for a second with rituals and focus, like I enjoy, because I’ve got two kids under two, and I’ve got a home office in an enclosed porch, so I upgraded it to get a real nice sound-blocking door, but sometimes it doesn’t block enough sound. So, I’d like to put in earplugs, plus Bose noise-cancelling headphone, plus either the focus playlist, or we had a previous guest who talked about, she listens to Star Trek: The Next Generation engine idling noise as white noise.

Erik Fisher
Beautiful.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I found that and I use that sometimes. And so, that’s been the groove so far. But I’m intrigued by Brain.fm for that context as well as, hey, the power napping and more.

Erik Fisher
Yeah. So, I can tell you, one thing about the napping, as well as even the overnight sleep, which that’s a little bit tricky to do but I figured that out. Basically, you put it on as an app, and then it allows you to download an evening of Brain.fm sleep alpha wave patterns. Oh, I know where I was going. I was like, “Where was I going with this?”

When I talked to the guy that’s the head of it on my show, I told him, “I go to sleep listening to music, always have, since about junior high.” And I said, “It helps me fall asleep faster. Now why is this different?” And he says, “Well, number one, you listening to music as you go to sleep is a ritual, so it’s triggering your brain as you lay down in bed that it’s time to go to bed. And so, you’re still going to find that this has that power to it because you’re still going kind of through the ritual.”

However, the difference between Brain.fm and listening to regular music is that this is going to get your brainwaves into where you want them to go, which is deeper sleep, faster, and then keep them there because of the way that, again, I’ll use the word music, the way that it plays and it works and it keeps you calm and all that.

Now, the other thing that I have found is me, putting on my Bose noise-cancelling headphones, even if no one’s home, and turning it to the meditation or the calming setting, and doing 15 minutes of even if I’m just sitting in my desk, at my desk, in my desk chair, closed eyes or not, and just kind of breathing, “it gets you there faster” in terms of calming down and taking a break, and being able to then jump back from that more refreshed.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Erik Fisher
So, there you go. So, yeah, again, that link is BeyondTheToDoList.com/brainfm. They gave me that link and said, “Hey, if your listeners ever want to listen, try it out, they can try it out for free.” And if they sign up, which it’s not expensive.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I thought it would be more but I clicked pricing, I always make a guess before I actually click pricing, and it was well below my guess.

Erik Fisher
Brain.fm is cheaper than the one that I was using that I have for lifetime anyway, which is Focus At Will. Brain.fm is cheaper, and I was just like, “Oh, gosh, this is a no-brainer.” But you can get 20% a year with them, which is great.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, very cool. All right. Boy, you’re delivering the goods. So, we’re going to talk about specific means by which you are maintaining clarity and focus. We talked about the breaking of habits with the phone and the reduction of apps and such. We got the Brain.fm. Any other biggies?

Erik Fisher
Let’s see here. So, I have one other one that’s a secret weapon.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d like if you disclose.

Erik Fisher
I will. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked with Jaime Masters before.

Pete Mockaitis
I know the name and the face but we’ve never talked.

Erik Fisher
So, she was on my show again recently. She and I did not plan on talking about this, but she shared this with me. She was doing these group mastermind things where she’d get people to come to like a big, a giant Airbnb somewhere, all these different leadership people and whatever. And they’d do these surveys afterwards, and people would ask them, she would ask the people, sorry, “What were the things that stood to you the most?” And she, embarrassingly, shared with me that the thing they were talking to her about was they would say, “Jaime’s drugs.” And she was like, “What? What are you talking about?” And she says, well, because she would bring something called nootropics with her.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Erik Fisher
So, have you heard what this word is?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard of nootropics. I’ve been a little spooked to ingest them myself.

Erik Fisher
Yes. So, here’s the deal, she had no idea that I had already tried one, yeah. And what I did was, basically, it’s called Alpha BRAIN. And she was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s one of the best ones.” And she said, “Here’s the thing, on Amazon you can go to the reviews, and it’s either, ‘This was amazing. It worked amazing for me,’ or, ‘This did nothing for me,’ and it’s really based upon who you are and your brain chemistry and all that kind of stuff.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, they got even three stars out of over a thousand reviews. Lovers and haters.

Erik Fisher
Yeah. And so, she said, “Here’s the thing, the issue with that one is that it works great for some people and does nothing for others, and it’s not inexpensive to get a hold of it, to start with, and try out and everything.” I said, “Well, hold up. They actually sent me some for free to try.” And then when it worked, because it did, and I’ll explain what it felt like in a second. She said, “Oh, that’s awesome.” And I said, “Yeah, I even wrote the guy back and said, ‘Hey, could I have a little bit more?’” in true drug, you know, the first one is free, so, “Could I have some more?”

And, anyways, what it came down to they had actually realized that if they could get it in the hands of the people to try out cheap, then people would actually notice that it worked or not for them and then order more. And so, basically, I have a deal on this one too where people can get it. They can get a bottle of it with like 14 pills of it, and even just taking one a day, or even two a day, is enough to see if it’s going to affect you at all, and you pay like five bucks for the shipping and that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued. And I guess what’s kind of kept me out of this is like, “Is it addictive? Is it dangerous? Is it, you know?” And it’s like, well.

Erik Fisher
No and no.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Erik Fisher
Here’s how I’ll explain it. So, I was concerned with it. Let me first say this, before they ever approached me, and before Jaime and I ever had talked about it, months ago I saw in an Instagram story Michael Hyatt holding the bottle and saying he was taking it and loving it.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s something about Michael Hyatt, he’s such a standup guy. It’s like, “If Michael Hyatt takes this, it must not be dirty.”

Erik Fisher
Exactly my take too. And I love him and so I took a screenshot of it and just forgot about it. And then months later, it kind of bubbled back up into my head, and I was like, “Yeah, I should probably check that out.” I think it was only a matter of a few weeks later, somehow. I assumed maybe they found out by searching through the photos on my phone that I had looked at it or something, I don’t know. That’s when they sent it to me.

So, my predisposition to it was Michael Hyatt, and he kind of clears the path for me on a lot of things, to be honest. And so, I took two of them. There was like 14 of them in the small bottle and I took two of them on a Thursday, or it was a Tuesday. And so, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of a very tough week, I was taking two of them in the morning, honestly, just without even thinking about it. And then I just never gave it any thought.

But then I realized come Thursday later afternoon, and then even Friday morning again, it occurred to me, “Do you realize you haven’t felt like you needed to like crash and take a nap, or have two or three extra cups of coffee these past few days? But you also don’t feel like you are wired and jittery and whatever like you would’ve had if you’d taken those cups of coffee, and it’s just not as much of an effort to like, focus?” And so, to myself, I said, “Yes, you’re right, I have seen that. I have noticed that.”

And that’s exactly what it was. It wasn’t some kind of, “Oh, my gosh, I drank five energy Red Bulls or something.” It was like—oh, this is the best way to put it. You know how if you’ve ever lost any significant amount of weight, you don’t suddenly feel, but over time, you feel like you have so much more energy. It’s kind of the equivalency of that with your brain, but after having lost like 10 or 20 pounds, your brain just feels like it’s not weighed down as much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing.

Erik Fisher
That’s what it felt like. That’s what it feels like. And so, once they said, “Hey, here’s this code in case anybody is interested. They can grab a bottle for free. They just pay shipping,” I told two of my friends right away. I said, “Hey, not kidding you, I’ve tried this. Check out this page. If you’re interested, there you go.”

And one of them was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m now taking one in the morning and one in the afternoon.” And he then said—and he loves coffee, by the way so he’s still having it—but he found that he was able to get so much more done over the course of the week than he was previously up to that point. So, for him it worked. For the other one, it actually didn’t. It didn’t really do much. So, that was actually interesting to me to find out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m encouraged to hear that it hasn’t produced any dangers and it hasn’t produced any addiction.

Erik Fisher
No, because there are days I don’t take it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s nifty. Well, hey, everyone be safe and do your research, but I’m taking a gander at it. I don’t see anything terrifying on the Amazon page. So, yeah, what is this link?

Erik Fisher
Oh, yes. Sorry, I didn’t even think to give you that. so, again, I made it easy, it’s BeyondTheToDoList.com/alphabrain.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Erik Fisher
So, there you go. Yeah, you can get it or not, and it’s cheap. You just pay like five bucks. Basically, think of it this way, one cup of coffee at a Starbucks and you might get, cost-wise, and you can see if this works for you. And if it does, again, you can kind of low-key take it, try it, whatever. And if it does something, great. For me and for some other people out there, it does a lot of good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. So, we got the nootropics, and we got the phone discipline, we got Brain.fm. Any other things that have been really key for you when it comes to keeping the clarity and focus on track?

Erik Fisher
So, this is the other big thing, and this is actually huge for me. And, again, this is another thing that I kind of was a believer in, but not a stickler about to a certain extent until I talked with Michael Hyatt about it, and it’s sleep and napping.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m a firm advocate of that and I think we got that point covered. We’ll just kind of add one more check mark of support from Erik Fisher on this one.

Erik Fisher
I think you’re there. And, actually, I track it. Like, I wear my Apple Watch at night to track my sleep, and I just know weeks and months where I’m in a better sleep groove, I am struggling less throughout the day. And, again, to do back to the Brain.fm thing, like I, literally, was able to see like, funny, night and day difference when it came to getting more rest in my day because it tracks even those naps, my app does. So, the more sleep I was getting, the more awake I was during the day, the better off I was. So, there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. That’s great. Well, I guess I think sleeping and napping is huge and important. It takes time but it’s time well-spent. Are there any like tiny things that just have huge leverage in terms of, “Hey, this takes less than five minutes a day, but when I do it, it’s game-changing versus when I don’t”?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, I would say, I call it passing the baton to my future self. So, I’m near the end of my day today, and instead of, when you and I are done recording, jumping off and saying, “Okay, what’s for dinner?” and walking out the door, like actually sitting and cleaning up my desk and arranging my list of stuff. Now, again, I’ve already gone over what the list of stuff is for tomorrow on a weekly checklist kind of a basis, on a weekly review kind of thing.

But doing a closing, or a shutdown, or again passing the baton to my future self tomorrow morning, that shutdown, that ritual, is what’s going to make tomorrow morning, even if I feel maybe out of sorts or say something happens and I don’t get enough sleep and I’m struggling, I don’t have to struggle as hard or as much.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sounds like a nice visual metaphor in that your future self appreciates that, you’ve taken some time to hook up future Erik with a nice environment to flourish, so that’s awesome. Any other quick yet high-leverage things?

Erik Fisher
Cutting stuff off the list.

Pete Mockaitis
Amen. No, absolutely, it’s the fastest way to shrink your to-do list is to decide not to do it.

Erik Fisher
Or, better yet, better said, is decide not to do it now.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is the now mean you’re going to do it later or you’ve decided now that you’re not going to do it ever?

Erik Fisher
It can be both but I was referring more to, “When is the right time to do it so that you’re not trying to overpack your days and your weeks?”

Pete Mockaitis
I dig.

Erik Fisher
So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, maybe we’ll zoom out a little bit. So, we kind of talked about some really super precise like tools or tactical things to do. But I’d love to hear kind of big picture. Boy, you’ve been running Beyond the To-Do List for, is it seven years now?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, we’re basically at the seven-year mark.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so amazing. Well, congratulations. And you’re an inspiration for my podcast when I was thinking, “Does anybody want to listen to this kind of stuff? Let’s take a look around. Oh, hey, a good many of them do and Erik Fisher and Beyond the To-Do List is one good example.” So, thank you. Who knows if I hadn’t found a couple of inspiring examples, where would we be? So, thank you.

Erik Fisher
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, what are some themes that have come up again and again and again in terms of when people, they’re trying to be focused and productive and then take care of what’s really meaningful in their work and lives? What are kind of those foundational principles that pop up repeatedly?

Erik Fisher
Well, I kind of alluded to it a little bit just a moment ago with taking things off the list as well as kind of paring back and simplifying again the use of the phone, and I don’t want to go back into those things per se. But it’s just this idea that I think we have the wrong perspective when it comes to productivity. We think that, and I even had a conversation with, oh, I’m blanking on his name, Mike Sturm, that’s it, a couple of months ago, the idea between, “What’s the difference between the word efficiency and productivity?” And there was even another word, I forget what it was, but anyways.

Pete Mockaitis
Effectiveness?

Erik Fisher
That is it. I feel like you’ve listened to that episode.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m spying on you everywhere.

Erik Fisher
Nice. So, it was this kind of, and it was a real productivity whatever geek-out moment for me to have that conversation with him because there are different meanings to each of those three words and they’re all good in themselves and they all kind of fold in on each other. It kind of made me, I mean, it really made me think, I shouldn’t say, not kind of made me think. It really made me think. And it was just like, “You know what, in the end, it’s, ‘What are you trying to do? How much of it are you trying to get done? How much is enough even? And what’s overkill? Like, burn out and all that.’”

Again, when you go back to the whole sleep thing and whatever, but we don’t need to go there. It’s this idea that, Parkinson’s Law where work will expand to fill the time allotted. And so, if we can figure out how to more efficiently, or more fast-ly—which is not a word—get the work done to where we’re kind of breaking that law, we’re saying, “Hey, I’m going to get this work done faster than I allow for it to be done,” then suddenly you’ve freed up this time.

Then you have this question which, recently I was talking with the Get It Done guys, Stever Robbins, in one of my most recent episodes.

Pete Mockaitis
He’s so good.

Erik Fisher
And he was like, “Look, you’re sitting in a cubicle and you’re really good at getting your work done, and then they noticed you’re really good at getting your work done, and then they suddenly say, ‘Well, wait a second, we either haven’t been giving him enough work to do, or we have been underpaying him.’ They’re not going to give you the raise. Let’s put it there. They’re not going to go and give you a raise. What they’re going to do instead is say, “We aren’t giving you enough work to do because you’ve got it all done all day.”

And I’ve been in that position, by the way. I’ve been the person who hacked his cubicle and figured out how to get everything that I needed to get done, and then some, and run rings around my co-workers, and yet get paid no more than them, and have all this free time to play video games in my cubicle. More than a decade to 15 years ago now.

I’m kind of half ecstatic about how I figured out how to do that and half ashamed. But, that said, you see where I’m going with this, if you are working for yourself, you then suddenly have this quandary where if you’re getting things done faster, and you’re getting them all done, you can either start to wander into, “What else can I be doing, and add onto that, and fill my day even more?” which, again, it’s attractive to a lot of people, it’s like, “How much more stuff can I get done because I got this stuff that I was already used to getting done already done but faster?” You start to wander, though, into this place of unintentional burnout or unintentional status quo, kind of like with the phone as I was talking about earlier.

You use it originally for a few good things, and then it becomes the thing you use for all the things. And then you have booked yourself solid to where, you know, you’ve got a meeting, you’ve got five meetings a day, and 12 podcasts to record, and 29 blogposts to write, and/or videos to record, not to mention all the different Instagram stories and social media things you could be doing. It’s like, “Hold up. Which of the things that are the most…?” What was the third word? It wasn’t productivity and it wasn’t…

Pete Mockaitis
Effectiveness?

Erik Fisher
Effective. So, it’s then towards what effectiveness are you headed towards? What intentionality are you trying to get to end of the day, end of the week, end of the quarter? Actually, this is one of the biggest things since we talked, is I’ve been in a mastermind, and we’d go by the 12-week year. And, essentially, what that means is instead of 12 months in a year, there’s 12 weeks in a quarter, and we just kind of compress a year, and we say, “Okay, for this next sprint of three months, what is it that we want to accomplish? Like, for example, working on a book or something like that. And how far can we get?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and what I like about that is you call it a 12-week sprint, and there’s four 12-week periods, yields, 48 weeks, leaving four weeks for you to kind of relax a little bit between these sprints.

Erik Fisher
Yes, exactly, there’s actually more weeks in a year than the 12 times 4, so you get a little bit of breathing room in there to recalibrate, etc. But, yeah, that has been kind of the, I don’t know, the analyze everything, the, “Hold up, don’t add something new in.” There’s a lot of people out there, who’s like, “You’ve got to quit something to then start something.” That’s great and all. But also, what if we just quit something to quit something? What if we just eliminated things on the to-do list? What if we just said, “This is great to do but it’s not yielding a lot, so let’s just stop doing it altogether and not replace it with something else”?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool.

Erik Fisher
That’s where my head’s been.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate it. And, I guess, my final question was going to be, you know, what have been some of the most transformational guests and ideas you’ve come across? And it sounds like you’ve already shared a few. But if anything is missing, now is your chance, let her rip.

Erik Fisher
All right. So, let’s see, so let me see if I can think back through. So, I mentioned Cal Newport, that’s in regards to the phone. My most recent episode with Michael Hyatt, we talked about killing distractions and his approach to how he did was I did with his phone, and that’s a really interesting one. Let’s see, I recently talked with Mike Sturm, and we talked about all that productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. That’s a good one. Who else did I mention? Do you remember who else I mentioned? I can’t remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Cal Newport, Michael Hyatt.

Erik Fisher
Yes. Oh, Jaime Masters, that was the one about the nootropics. And we talked about time tracking. And, oh, we talked about absolute yes in that one as well. So, how everybody is like, “You know, you’ve got to learn how to say no so you don’t fill up your calendar and things like that.” She goes at it from the opposite perspective, where she’s like, “I’d love to say yes to everything but only the things that I’m willing to say, ‘Absolutely, yes,’ am I going to say yes to.” So, that’s actually another great kind of reframing of how to say no to things and has to do with opportunity costs. So, Jaime Masters, that’s another one that was very recent.

And then, James Clear, the habits, the Atomic Habits, I should say his “Atomic Habits” book that came out late last year. I talked to him about that. And that, essentially, has to do with filling in the gaps and looking at, in a new light, the old adage of, basically, habitualizing things so that you don’t have to lean in as much on like discipline or willpower because you’ve created that activity, that pattern, that consistency, that groove, of making the right choices, or enabling yourself to make the right choices easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, Erik, this has been a real nice lineup. I’d like to hear about some of your favorite things now, if you could first give us a favorite quote.

Erik Fisher
I don’t know if I told you this one last time. Did you ask for quotes last time? I don’t remember.

Pete Mockaitis
I did. And I think it’s kind of fun if you reinforced, that’s cool. If you have a new one, that’s cool too.

Erik Fisher
Right. This is so self-centered of me to say this. My favorite quote is my own quote, it’s, “Good ideas come from many ideas.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like it. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Erik Fisher
Oh, gosh. So, actually, I’ll point back to the study, the stuff that came out of, what’s his name, James Clear, the habit book. There’s a lot of science in the book that reinforces the different ways of habitualizing, so I’m going to have to claim that because he doesn’t come at it as a book writer or a business book writer. He comes at it as, “Hey, I have all this research. How do I formulate this into something that people can get something out of it because they need to know this?” So, it is really is a study in book form.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And how about a favorite tool?

Erik Fisher
So, I probably mentioned some of those but, again, one of my favorites is to go back to Brain.fm. One of the other ones is, actually, this one is called Otter.ai.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the transcription.

Erik Fisher
The transcription, yeah. I love, love, love that. So, being able to upload audio files into there and they can transcribe it, or just being able to like turn it on again on my iPad or my phone and I have it recorded and then send it to the cloud and it’ll start transcribing for me is also pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, you hear them say it back to you often?

Erik Fisher
Oh, that’s interesting. I think it comes down to me giving them permission to not get everything done.

Pete Mockaitis
They need an authority figure like yourself too.

Erik Fisher
Hey, you know, you can get it done, move it tomorrow. It’s fine. As long as you’re not dropping the ball or dropping balls. Like, it’s fine. It’s a matter of which one. Again, you can’t get everything done, not all the time, not at every moment. Like, right now, I’m talking to you. I’m not doing other things but I’m, hopefully, executing well on the thing I’m doing and choosing to do right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, perfect. It’d be BeyondTheToDoList.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Erik Fisher
I’m going to point people back to where we started and just say, “How much time can you go without your phone?” That’s my challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Erik, this has been a treat. Thanks for sharing the good word. I wish you lots of luck with your show Beyond the To-Do List, and your many other adventures.

Erik Fisher
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

415: Pursuing Your Passion the Smart Way with Brad Stulberg

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Brad Stulberg says: "Do you control your passion or does your passion control you?"

Brad Stulberg explores the inherent contradiction between pursuing passion and balance…and what to do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three common paradoxes of passion
  2. The dangers of rooting your identity to a passion
  3. Why self-aware imbalance is often appropriate

About Brad

Brad Stulberg researches, writes, speaks, and coaches on health and human performance. His coaching practice includes working with athletes, entrepreneurs, and executives on their mental skills and overall well-being. He is a bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance and a columnist at Outside Magazine. Brad has also written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Wired, Forbes, and The Los Angeles Times. Previously, Stulberg worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company, where he counseled some of the world’s top executives on a broad range of issues. An avid athlete and outdoor enthusiast, Stulberg lives in Northern California with his wife, son, and two cats. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brad Stulberg Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis:                    Brad, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Brad Stulberg:                      Hey, thanks so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, I’m excited to dig into your next book, but first I want to hear about your love of cats.

Brad Stulberg:                      My love of cats. How do you know I love cats?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, there’s a form I have guests fill out about-

Brad Stulberg:                      Oh, I said I loved-

Pete Mockaitis:                    Oh, yeah, you totally … You just gave it up that you love cats. It’s also in your bio that you live in Northern California with wife, son and two cats. So you can’t escape it.

Brad Stulberg:                      I’ve got two, as you said, Sonny and Bryant and they’re endearing, adorable creatures. It’s like having two of the goofiest roommates that are just there and they don’t pay rent.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, tell me what are some of the goofy behaviors?

Brad Stulberg:                      The goofy behaviors. Well, let’s see. So Sonny, who is an orange tabby, she has, my wife and I joke, we call it office hours. So she is the cuddliest, most loving cat between 1:00 and 4:00 PM. Otherwise you can’t touch he. It’s so bizarre. She’ll come find you wherever you are in the afternoon and plop on your lap and just love on you. But then when 4:00 PM rolls around, she wants nothing to do with it. And then Bryant, everything about Bryant is interesting. We would have to record for hours and hours, I’d just have to follow him around with a video camera, but he’s just a total mess in the best way possible.

Pete Mockaitis:                    All right. Well, it sounds like that’s keeping things interesting and I also want to hear about some of the most interesting, surprising, fascinating discoveries you’ve made when researching The Passion Paradox.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, that sounds good. That’s a little bit more concrete than Bryant the cat.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, yeah, lay it on us.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, so the book is called The Passion Paradox and the title is pretty telling in the sense that the biggest discovery is so much of what conventional thinking around passion holds is all paradox. And there are three main paradoxes. The first is that people are told to find your passion, and there’s an expectation that you’re going to stumble upon something that will be like love at first sight and you’ll immediately feel energized and you’ll know this is the thing that I’m passionate about. That’s not how it works.

In the vast, vast, vast majority of the cases individuals cultivate passion over time and it doesn’t start out perfect and it’s that very belief and expectation that something should be perfect right away that actually gets in a lot of people’s way from ever growing into a passion.

Second big paradox is this notion that if you just follow your passion you’ll have a great life. And passion is a double-edged sword. Passion can absolutely be a wonderful gift and it can lead to great accomplishments, it could lead to a meaningful life, it can lead to great energy. At the same time passion can become a destructive curse. And that can happen in a few ways.

One is that the inertia of what you’re doing gets so strong that you can’t see beyond it and you get so swept up in what you’re doing that everything else falls away. And for a period of time that might be okay, but in the long term a lot of people end up with regrets. And then the second way that passion can take a negative turn is when you become more passionate about the external validation you get from doing something than the thing itself.

And this is a really, really, really subtle thing that happens to people. You start doing something because you’re interested in it. If you’re lucky you cultivate a passion, you love it. And then you start doing really well, and when you start doing well, you start getting recognized for doing well. And often what will happen is without someone even noticing it, the lotus of their passion shifts from the activity to all the recognition. So you love writing and then you make a best seller list and then suddenly you’re only happy if you’re on bestseller lists. You love your job and suddenly you’re only happy if you’re constantly noticed in meetings and you’re constantly getting promoted.

So it’s this fine line between being passionate about the activity itself versus being passionate about the recognition you got from it. The former, here’s the paradox. The former, if you’re passionate about the activity, that’s associated with overall life satisfaction and high performance. The latter, if you become passionate about the results, which is called obsessive passion, that is associated with burnout, angst, and depression.

Yeah, so there’s that and then the third thing I’ll lay it all on you because that’s what you asked for and then we can dive in more detail perhaps. The third thing is, that I can’t tell you how many times since I’ve graduated college, which is a little bit over a decade ago, I’ve been told two things. One is to find and follow my passion and the other is to live a balanced life, and this makes no sense because passion and balance are completely antithetical.

By definition when you’re passionate about something the world narrows and it’s the thing that you’re passionate about that is going to consume you. So that seems opposite to balance. And if you ask people when they feel most alive, very rarely does someone say, “It was when I had perfect balance.” Often what you’ll hear is, “It was when I was falling in love or when I was training for my first marathon or when I was launching a business or when I had a new kid.” Now, those are not very balanced times.

They’re describing time when they felt like they were like being consumed by something. Yet if you ask people over the course of a life, what does it mean to live a good life? Most people will say, “To have balance.” So again, both things are true at the same time. So it’s really about, how can you be passionate, go all in on things, get that good energy, but then be able to pivot to other things when the time is right. And that’s so much easier to say than to actually practice.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Brad, you are a master. Thank you. That is so much good stuff and we could spend hours unpacking that, maybe even more hours discussing this than the cat, I might say, in terms of all the nuances to be explored.

Brad Stulberg:                      The nuance of Bryant’s behavior. He contains multitude.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Oh boy. So let’s have some fun with this. All right. Well, I think each of those things you said makes great sense to me and sparks all kinds of curiosity. So why don’t we just dig into each in practice. So okay, for the find your passion advice you say we kind of have a little bit of expectation or hope that it’s going to be love at first sight. And in practice, it’s not. It’s more of a cultivation over time. So can you explain a little bit for what does the progression look like most often in terms of when folks got a passion alive at work for them, how did they get there?

Brad Stulberg:                      What’s interesting is the first thing that’s very important is this mindset shift. Again, if you have the expectation that you’re just going to stumble into an activity and you’re going to find your passion, that is the foremost barrier to actually having a passion because almost nothing is great right off the bat. And what’s very interesting is the research and passion parallels the research and love. So individuals that want to find the perfect partner, they end up constantly seeking versus someone that goes in and says, “You know what, I’m going to pursue good enough and I’m going to cultivate it and nourish it and maybe 30 years from now it will be perfect.” And there’s all kinds of research in relationships that shows that that mindset tends to lead to lasting love.

And it’s very much the same with passion. So going in and thinking of it less as this lightning striking and more as a curiosity for the things that interest you and then pursuing those interests, that’s the conduit into what becomes passion. And then when you’re pursuing the interests, the research is very clear here that there are three key things that help something perhaps become rooted in your life as a passion. And this is born out of a psychological theory called self-determination theory.

And what that states is that if an activity offers you autonomy, so you have some control over what you’re doing and when you’re doing it, if it offers you competence or mastery, so there’s a path of progression of improvement and if there’s a sense of belonging and whether that’s physical belonging, you’re actually working in a team or with other people or if it’s more psychological belonging, so you’re picking up a line where there have been craftspeople before you and there will be after you. Those three things tend to help interests transition from merely being an interest or a hobby into a passion.

Pete Mockaitis:                    I’m intrigued by the autonomy point because as I think about some passions very much are kind of team sports if you will. It could actually even be sports, hey, it’s basketball, you know, play in the basketball team. Or it could be music, I’m in the orchestra. Or it could be entrepreneurship, hey, my team is doing this thing. So how are you defining autonomy here?

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s a great question. Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going at it alone, but more so that there is room for you to chart your own path. So you might be playing on a team for sure, but I mean, if you have a coach that tells you exactly and I mean exactly how to style your game and what you should do minute-by-minute, day-by-day, that probably won’t be so happy whereas if you have some room to explore yourself and decide how you want to craft your game.

Same thing with the musician perhaps. There’s definitely autonomy in how you practice and most musicians, at least those that have passion, they’re in orchestras or they’re in arrangements where they also have some autonomy to explore their own style of music. And in a workplace setting, its this is just the difference between good management and micromanagement. Someone under good management should feel autonomy to drive their work, make decisions, take risks. Someone that’s being micromanaged often doesn’t feel that.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Okay, I got you.

Brad Stulberg:                      A great example to make this really concrete is actually what you’re doing right now, and I know that you’re passionate about your podcast and my guess is that when you first started going into podcast … You didn’t know podcasting was going to be the thing and my guess is also that you probably weren’t great right off the bat.

Pete Mockaitis:                    It’s true.

Brad Stulberg:                      There was a line of progression and yet with the podcast you have full autonomy. It’s your show. You decide who you’re going to interview. You decide the flow. There’s clear mastery and progression. I bet like this episode is going to sound a lot different than your first one. And there’s, of course, belonging because you’re sharing this with your audience and you’re getting to meet and have interesting conversations with people that have similar interests to you.

So I think that there’s no … It’s not ironic that podcasting has taken off because again, it’s something that people can start is an interest, very few people expect to be great right away and it fulfills those three criteria really clearly.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Indeed, it does. Well, I’d love to get your take on … Well, what are some things … Are there some activities or pursuits that by these criteria cannot become someone’s passion?

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, there are plenty. I think the first is that if you find yourself in a workplace situation where you are being terribly micromanaged or where everything that you do is pretty murky, and what I mean by that is there are no objective barometers of whether or not you’re improving or doing a good job, those are the kinds of jobs where people tend to get pretty frustrated and either burn out or they just kind of accept it and go through the motions.

Pete Mockaitis:                    I guess what I’m thinking is that the activity in a different environment or context could provide autonomy or mastery.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yes, totally. It’s often context-dependent, not activity-dependent. And I think this is really important for managers that are listening out there, You want your employees to be passionate and your job is then to create those conditions where people have the ability to pursue what interests them and they have autonomy, they have some sense of progression or mastery, and they feel like they belong. And the flip side is, if you’re being managed and you don’t feel that, it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation with who’s ever managing you about those things or perhaps it’s time to find a new job.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Okay. Well, there it is. So that’s how passion comes about. You’re curiously pursuing something that’s interesting and then if you got those ingredients of autonomy or pursuing confidence, mastery and sense of belonging, that can lead to hey, we got a passion here.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yes, and then the second paradox right is now awesome, I’m passionate, it’s all downhill from here, life is going to be great. And the common trap is that life is great and then suddenly you start crushing it at your passion and people start recognizing that and then you get attached to that recognition. And in the worst case your entire identity fuses with that recognition. So you’re only as good as your last podcast or you’re only as good as the last project that you took on.

And even worse, you’re only as good as how people received the last podcast or how people received the last project that you took on. And that’s a very precarious position to be in because that can set you up for all kinds of highs and lows in a really fragile sense of self-worth and identity.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah. Yeah, that’s powerful. What’s coming to mind for me right now is this interview in which … I think was on Ellen, in which Ronda Rousey, The Ultimate Fighter, who she lost a big match, I don’t know the details, and she was on Ellen talking about it and she’s just crying and it’s powerful because for one, hey, this is a tough fighter person who’s crying and two, she really articulates that notion in terms of like, “Well, if I’m not a champion, then what am I?”

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, that’s hard. And as I said, obsessive passion is associated with anxiety, depression, burn out and then it’s also associated with cheating. What’s really interesting is you look at someone like Elizabeth Holmes, who is the former founder and CEO of Theranos, which is the kind of sham pharmaceutical company, all kinds of fraudulent behavior. When she was being celebrated it was all about her passion. I believe it was the Washington Post that ran a story that basically said like, “Elizabeth Holmes is the most passionate, obsessed person there is and that’s why she’s so successful.”

And yet, it might have been that very passion and that very obsession that led her to lie when things weren’t going great in her company. Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player who we now know was using performance-enhancing drugs and steroids throughout his career, when he retired, even after all that he was interviewed by Forbes for his career advice and his number one piece of advice was “follow your passion.” So again, it’s this double edged sword where yeah, passion is great, but if all you care about is hitting the most home runs or all you care about is being the company that everyone’s talking about, well, when things don’t go well, you’re going to do anything possible to remedy that even if it’s not so ethical.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, so that’s, you said double edged sword. That’s one way is you come attached to the sort of validations and externals instead of the thing itself and it can be-

Brad Stulberg:                      And I don’t want it to be negative. So let me also … So there are practices that can help you remedy this, and there are a whole bunch in the book, but the one that I find the most powerful it to mention here is just this notion of getting back to the work. So after a huge success like yes, pause, celebrate, feel good about it. Do that for 24, maybe 48 hours, but then get back to doing the work. There’s something about doing the work that is so humbling and that on a very visceral level, you feel it in your brain and in your bones. It reminds you that hey, I like the work. As much as the validation feels good, what really makes me tick is the process of doing the work.

The concrete example in my own life as a writer, when I write a story that has a very positive reception or for that matter, a very negative reception, a story I thought I would do great that doesn’t, I’ll let myself have those emotions for a day and then I really try to make a discipline of within 24 hours starting on the next thing, because otherwise I can get very caught up in this kind of cycle of like praise or negativity and then once that cycle grows roots, it becomes harder to step out of.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, that’s really good stuff. And as I’m thinking there about the double-edged sword, you talk about consumption, I guess that’s the third paradox. So it’s a sword both in terms of you feeling like you’re pursuing a great life and loving it and digging it and having tons of fun with it, but also getting tempted perhaps to follow the external. I’m curious, you’ve got that practice there with regard to hey, when you get the celebration or the victory, you celebrate, then you return to the work. I guess I’m curious, are there any little internal indicators or like kind of early warning signs you might be on the lookout for? Like wait a minute, alert, alert, passion is starting to get externalized, you’ll correct now.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, it’s a great question. There are. The first one that comes to mind for me is if you notice massive changes in your mood based on how well something does in the outside world. So if you’re in a great mood and you go into a meeting and an idea you have isn’t while received or you don’t get to share as much as you would have hoped and the rest of your day is completely ruined. If that happens once or twice, fine. If that’s an ongoing pattern, like yikes.

If you do anything that has a kind of more broad social measurement scheme and what I’m thinking here is social media. So if you’re kind of obsessively checking your retweets or likes or comments, that is a sign of uh-oh, am I really in this to connect with other people and to create good work or am I in this because it feels really good to see how many people liked my post? And if it’s the latter then again, like what happens when you have a post that no one likes? Well, you feel like shit.

I think it’s important to state here that no one is 100% like disciplined or harmoniously passionate. We’re humans. Everyone likes to feel good. The thing is that you just have to realize that hey, that’s a normal behavior and if I catch myself engaging in it too often, it’s time to get back to the work. So don’t judge yourself and be like, “Oh, I’m obsessively passionate. I’m doomed.” It’s more like, “Oh, wow. I noticed myself caring quite a bit about external validation. Let me think about why did I get into this thing in the first place and have I actually done the activity itself recently? And if not, I should dive back into it.” Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Absolutely. Got it. Well, so now let’s talk about this passion and balance being antithetical. Passion can consume you and so then yeah, how do you play that game optimally in terms of if you want to feel alive so you want to have the passion, but you also don’t want to I guess let everything else fall apart in your life? What are your thoughts there?

Brad Stulberg:                      What I found in the research and reporting on the book is that there’s an expectation, a cultural expectation to have balance day-to-day. And when people hear balance, at least those people that I’ve surveyed, they often think or they often describe everything in it’s right place, in right proportion day after day. I wake up at this hour. I get my kids off to school. I do my yoga. I go to work. I listen to a podcast. I leave work at 5:00. I come home. I watch a TV show. I spend time with my kids. I cook dinner. I have passionate sex with my romantic partner and I sleep eight hours and then I do the same thing the next day.

If you can do that, great. If you can do that and you’re happy, great. Don’t change anything, that’s a great life. But I say that kind of laughing because most people can’t do that and then they get frustrated or they think that they’re doing something wrong when in fact, nothing’s wrong. There are times when it is good to be imbalanced. And those are the times when you’re really passionate about one of those elements in your life. So to try to force balance day in and day out, again, if it’s there, great, roll with it, but if it feels like you’re having to force it, that’s a pretty like narrow contracting space.

And it’s much better to allow yourself to actually go all in on the things that make you tick. And here’s the big kicker is, so long as you have enough self-awareness to realize when the trade-off is no longer worth it. I’m going to train for this Olympic cycle at the expense of my family and my friends. Okay. What happens if you don’t make this Olympic cycle or what happens to the next Olympic cycle? Those are the questions that people have to ask because as you’re pursuing this passion, the inertia of the thing that you’re doing is really strong and when that takes whole, it’s hard to have the self-awareness, to evaluate well, am I prioritizing? Am I evaluating these trade-offs as I should be?

There’s some fascinating research in the book that shows that individuals that are in the throes of passion, even if it’s a productive passion. So someone training for the Olympics or an entrepreneur starting a company, they show very similar changes in brain activity as somebody with an eating disorder. And that is because when someone with an eating disorder looks in the mirror, they often don’t see someone that is skin and bones. They actually often see someone that is fat, that is obese or overweight. They have a distorted view of reality.

Well, what is training for the Olympics or trying to start a company other than a distorted view of reality? We know only 0.1% of athletes ever make the Olympics. We know that something like 99% of startups fail. So it’s kind of delusional and in a neurochemical level, it’s the same thing that you’d see in someone with a pathological delusion. The difference is in the case of passion, you’re pointing at something that society says is productive, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less gripping. So the ability to maintain some self-awareness, to look in the mirror and see things as they actually are is so, so important when pursuing a passion.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Wow, that went in a very different direction that I thought that we’re passionate … Yeah, well, you said passion and then eating disorder, brain activity is the same. I was like, oh, okay, so it’s sort of like that obsessiveness, but now you in terms of like what we’re actually perceiving in terms of what is right in front of our face is wild.

Brad Stulberg:                      I mean, I’m sure that there’s some relationship due to the obsessiveness, but it’s really, it’s a perception thing. And this is a common thing, you hear about marriage is falling apart when someone starting a business and the significant other, it’s like the person completely loses self-awareness. The only thing that matters to them is the business and they don’t understand that they’re being a terrible spouse, a terrible parent, a terrible friend. They’re just so wrapped up in what they’re doing.

And again, I’m a firm believer that as long as you communicate with the other important people in your life, that those trade-offs are okay to make so long as you’re consciously making them. And once you stop consciously making them, that’s when all kinds of problems start.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, I hear you. I also want to get your take on sort of how we go about lying to ourselves when we’re in the midst of this, like what are some kind of watch out words, sentences, phrases that if you hear yourself saying them that might make you think, wait a sec, let’s double-check that.

Brad Stulberg:                      It can be similar to another example, and this is a back to the paradox of passion is addiction. So the definition of addiction or at least the definition that I like to use, and this is one that’s pretty widely accepted in both the scientific and clinical communities, is the relentless pursuit of something despite negative consequences. And I would argue that the definition of passion is the relentless pursuit of something with productive consequences.

Often times those consequences are socially constructed and socially defined. An example, an Olympic swimmer spends between six and eight hours a day staring at a line in the water. They do this at the exclusion of their family, of other interests. With the remaining time they have, they eat a meticulous diet and they sleep. If that isn’t like abnormal behavior, then I don’t know what is. The difference is that it’s pointed at this thing, being an elite athlete, that society says is productive.

Whereas imagine like if swimming wasn’t a sport that people celebrated. Someone would diagnose that person with some sort of psychological psychiatric disorder. But again, it’s because it’s pointed at something that society says is productive. The reason that I use that example and I bring in addiction in this despite negative or despite positive consequences, I think the ways that we lie to ourselves even when we’re doing a productive passion is we ignore the negative consequences or we tell ourselves they don’t really matter.

And again, it’s so hard to maintain self-awareness because there’s so much inertia. I mean, another example to make this real for listeners is when you fall in love. Generally when people fall in love, all they can think about is the object of their affection. It’s like everything else disappears and passion can be pretty similar. Again, it has to be a practice of maintaining some self-awareness, and there are concrete things that you can do to keep self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, lay it on us.

Brad Stulberg:                      What’s ironic here is that the way to maintain self-awareness in the pursuit of a passion is to get outside of yourself, because yourself becomes so wrapped up in what you’re doing. It’s like this web where only your passion is there. So some very simple things that you can do. One is to put yourself in situations where you’re experiencing awe. Go to an art gallery without your phone. Go on a day hike in a forest with no digital devices. There’s something about putting yourself in the way of beauty that kind of helps gain perspective and resets your brain to hey, like there’s more to life than this thing. I’m doing.

Another way to help with self-awareness is to have a close group of friends that you can really trust and make sure that they’re comfortable calling you out when you can’t see for yourself and then you have to listen to them. That’s the hard part because that’s when you’re going to lie to yourself. Your friend says, “Whoa, actually you’re a little bit overkill right now.” You’re gonna say, “No, I’m not. You don’t know what’s going on.” You have to make an agreement both with the friend to call you out and yourself took to listen to that friend.

If you’re not comfortable doing that, a really simple mental Jedi trick can be to pretend that one of your good friends was doing exactly what you’re doing and asked you for advice, what would you tell that friend? And then do that. It’s often very different than what you tell yourself. An example here that comes up often is you get an athlete that gets injured and they’re trying to train through the injury, which is so dumb and then you ask that athlete, well, like if your friend had the exact same issue and was trying to force themselves to the gym today, what would you say?

And you’d tell them, “Well, don’t go to the gym better to take a week off now than a year off later.” And then you say, “Well then why are you walking to the gym right now?” So it’s the ability to step outside of yourself that often helps you see what’s best for yourself in the midst of a passion. And then another simple practice is to reflect on mortality. There’s something about acknowledging the fact that you’re going to die one day that makes real clear what actually matters and it helps point you in that direction.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah. Well, that’s good stuff. Yeah, it’s heavy and it’s excellent. Maybe because you share an example of someone that you’ve encountered that you think is doing the passion thing really well. Maybe if you can particularly in sort of their career.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah. There are lots of people, which is great. It’s very feasible and it’s very doable. Someone that comes to mind is an executive that I’ve coached and worked with quite a bit. She is at top five position at a Fortune 25 company.

Pete Mockaitis:                    So it’s only 2,500 people in the world it could be.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, I know.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Mathematically, wrong to be speculating.

Brad Stulberg:                      That’s as much as I’ll give, but you guys can do the research. This individual has been so good about setting goals and progression markers that are fully within this person’s control and then judging herself and whether or not she executes on those progression markers. Very, very good at ignoring to a large extent all the noise around her and what other people think, especially because when you’re in a big company like that so much of that is just political wind. And if you get caught in the political wind, you’re going to get blown around.

So the first thing that comes to mind is a relentless pursuit of the things that you could control and judging yourself only on those things. The other thing is completely sacrificing from this idea of balance and instead thinking about boundaries and presence. And what that means is setting real, clear boundaries about these are the times I’m going all in and these are the times I’m going to be going all in with something else, and that can be the difference between work and family, and then bringing full presence to those things.

Versus what so many people do and it’s a common trap is when you’re at work, you’re like 80% at work, but 20% dealing with family and friends. And when you’re with family and friends you’re 70% with family and friends, but 30% checking your phone and at work. Versus being really, really stringent about 100% there and then 100% there. And then evaluating trade-offs and making trade-offs. You have to give up a lot to be a leader in an organization like that, and this individual quarterly reflects on her core values and makes sure that the way that she’s spending her time is aligned with those core values and has made some real changes as a result of what’s come up.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Very nice. Brad, tell me-

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s doable though, which is great. It’s actually very doable. It’s just that, and this is part of the reason if not the whole reason that I wrote this book. This is not stuff that I was told going into the workforce, not stuff that I was told once I was in the workforce. These vague terms are thrown around, find your passion, follow your passion, have balance. And I wasn’t really sure what it meant and I saw myself falling into some of the traps of the obsessive bad passion and I also saw myself being so immersed in what I was doing that I was starting to question like, is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? Maybe it’s just a thing but it’s both good and bad.

And when I started looking at the research, it’s kind of what I found was that wow, the way that people talk about this topic, which is so often talked about is completely out of sync with the truth and the nuance involved.

 

Pete Mockaitis:                    That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, now you can share with us a favorite quote so that you find inspiring.

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s actually very simple. The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “This is it.” And I actually have a little bracelet that just has a charm that says, “This is it,” on it. And I think that that’s a wonderful reminder to be present. It’s basically like whatever is in front of you, that’s what’s happening right now. It’s an especially helpful practice for me with a one-year-old at home, sleepless nights, middle of the night he’s crying. It’s really easy to get lost in a pretty negative thought space. But nope, this is it, this is what’s happening right now. How can I be present for it and deal with it?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Brad Stulberg:                      The research that I’ve been sharing is top of mind for me. And I think just this notion of obsessive versus harmonious passion or being passionate about results versus the thing itself and just a strong relationship in the former to anxiety, depression and burnout and in the latter, to performance, meaning, and life satisfaction and how they’re both passions, it’s just like in which direction are they pointed and how at different times of people’s lives they’re in different ends of that spectrum. That’s to me it’s so fascinating and so important to be aware of because that can be the difference between a long fruitful career and a not so long rocky career.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And how about a favorite book?

Brad Stulberg:                      Oh my gosh, really? I have so many. How many am I allowed to go over?

Pete Mockaitis:                    We’ll say three-ish.

Brad Stulberg:                      Three-ish. All right. It’s funny. I get asked this question sometimes and I try not to have just like a can three books because I really think that the books are kind of … It’s like the right book for the right person at the right time. So what are my three favorite books right now? So Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig is a perennial favorite. I think that that book is always going to be in my top three, and then I’m going to pair it, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to pair it with the sequel Lila, which is less read, but an equally phenomenal book. So there’s that.

This is so tough. I’m reading Devotions right now by Mary Oliver, the poet that just passed away, which is a collection of her best poems and that feels like a favorite book right now. That woman can just get to the truth of how things are in so few words in a very lyrical way. So that’s a beautiful book. And then my third favorite book right now is probably a book called The Art of Living, which is by Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s the Zen Master whose quote this is it I just shared.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, thank you. And how about a favorite tool so that helps you be awesome at your job?

Brad Stulberg:                      Meditation. That is a daily practice for me and it is so helpful in separating myself from my thoughts and my feelings and allowing me to have a more stable base upon which I work out of and then also allowing me to not get so attached to any one thing at any one point in time.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Is there particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks as you’re conveying this wisdom to them?

Brad Stulberg:                      I think it’s really important to ask yourself do you control your passion or does your passion control you? That’s kind of the heart of it. And if you control your passion, you’re in good shape. If your passion controls you, maybe consider some changes. And then equally important is this notion that passion is an ongoing practice. So it’s not a one time thing. So just because you control your passion right now doesn’t mean that that can’t change and just because your passion might control you right now doesn’t mean that can’t change. So it’s shift in mindset and to see passion is a practice and there are skills that support that practice and you have to develop them.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And Brad, if folks want to learn more or get in touch with, where to point them?

Brad Stulberg:                      So you can get in touch on Twitter where I am @BStulberg. So first initial of Brad and then my last name. And then through my website, which is www.BradStulberg.com.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks so they could be awesome at their jobs?

Brad Stulberg:                      I obviously am going to encourage folks to read the book. I’m proud of it. It’s my best work yet. There’s a lot of things in there that have certainly had a huge impact on my career and my life outside of my career. So I’d love it if people consider reading the book. And then the second thing is to do something active for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If you are already, great, keep doing what you’re doing. And if not, there are few things that are more transformative.

We spent a lot of time talking about this neat psychological stuff, but just try to move your body regularly and it doesn’t have to be formal exercise. It can be walking. It can be taking the stairs always that adds up to about 30 minutes, but move your body. That’s something that’s kind of getting more and more lost in our modern world, and it’s unfortunate.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well Brad, thank you so much for sharing the goods and I wish you tons of luck with the book, The Passion Paradox, and all your adventures.

Brad Stulberg:    Thanks so much Pete. I really enjoyed being on your show.

373: Getting Consistently Good Results from Yourself and Others with Weldon Long

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Weldon Long says: "Consistent results come from consistent activities. Random results come from random activities."

Weldon Long explains how his FEAR framework helped turn him from three-time ex-convict to a New York Times bestselling author and top sales expert.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How Weldon went from being a dropout and convict to a star salesperson
  2. A five-step process for getting what you want from others
  3. Achieving more consistent results through the FEAR framework

About Weldon

Weldon Long is a high school dropout who spent 13 years in prison for robbery, money laundering, and mail fraud. While in prison, Weldon started studying; earning his GED, BS in Law, and MBA in Management. Then, at 39 years old, Weldon was released. While living in a homeless shelter, Weldon landed a commission-only sales position and quickly became the company’s top sales leader. In 2004 he opened his own heating and cooling business and grew it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He now trains the sales teams at major Fortune 500 corporations including FedEx, Farmers, and Home Depot.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Weldon Long Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Weldon, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Weldon Long
Hey, Pete thanks so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. I think you’ve got a fascinating story. You say that sales saved your life. Can you walk us through how that worked?

Weldon Long
Yeah, absolutely. It may sound a little overdramatic, but it actually is true in my case.

From 1987 until 2003, over those roughly 16 years, I spent 13 years in prison, in federal and state prison. I was a ninth-grade high school dropout. I was kind of a punk and a thug, running the streets, using drugs and not being a very responsible person obviously, a very dysfunctional life.

At 23 years old I ended up going to prison, was out trying to pawn a shotgun for some rent money, couldn’t pawn the shotgun, ended up getting high with a guy that I picked up hitchhiking. We had a loaded gun in the truck, what could possibly go wrong with that scenario? Within a couple of hours he and I used that gun to hold two innocent men at gunpoint. Next thing I knew I was in prison for ten years.

I did about four and a half years and I paroled. I got out. I was still a ninth-grade high school dropout. Now I was also a convicted felon, so I didn’t have many opportunities. Then I ended up going back to prison again on some parole violations, got out again at 30 years old.

Now, I’m a two-time convicted felon, still a ninth grade high school dropout. Ended up taking a job doing some telemarketing and one day the FBI showed up. We all went to federal prison on mail fraud and money laundering convictions.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh bummer.

Weldon Long
Yeah, I know.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re trying to be legit and it turns out the company is – well, did you know they were fraudsters?

Weldon Long
Hey, listen, I should have been suspicious when they hired me, right? Anyway, then I went to the federal penitentiary for seven years. But it was during those seven years that I kind of had my moment of clarity and kind of set me on the path that I’ve been on for the last 22 some-odd years.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s hear about the moment of clarity, shall we? What happened?

Weldon Long
Yeah. Well, it was June 10th of 1996. I had already served about six years in state prison. I was just starting seven years in federal prison. On June 10th of 1996, one of the cops walked in the cell house and handed me a note to call home. I called home and learned that my father had unexpectedly and suddenly passed away at just 59 years old.

When I realized that my dad went to his grave knowing me as a thief and a crook and a liar, it completely devastated me. Just the reality of my life was right there in front of me. I was 32 years old. I had destroyed my entire life.

I started thinking about a conversation that my dad and I had a couple weeks before he passed away. We were on the phone and I was kind of complaining about my life and my dad said to me, he said, “You know son, your life could be worse.”

I said, “Dad, how in the world could my life be worse? I’m a ninth-grade high school dropout. I’ve never had a job, never had a home as an adult. Three-time convicted felon, not getting out this time until I’m 40 years old. I had a three-year-old son that I had fathered while I was out on parole. I had abandoned him.” I said, “Dad, how could my life be any worse?” He said, “Son, you’re still breathing. As long as you’re breathing, you’ve got a shot to change your life.”

With that we exchanged our I love you’s, hung up the phone, I never spoke to my father again. That was the last thing he ever said to me. Two weeks later, he was gone. After he passed away I made the decision, I was going to change the course of my life and become a man that my father could have been proud of and the father that my little son deserved. That’s exactly what I did.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. Well, congratulations and kudos and thank you for contributing to humanity in this way and taking charge and overcoming those challenges to do an about face, that must be super challenging. Go ahead.

Weldon Long
It wasn’t easy. But it’s interesting that you said kudos on the contribution. I think that’s what it really comes down to. We all have to work for our success, but the older I’ve gotten, I realize how important contribution is to the overall success in our lives.

My first book is a little book called The Upside of Fear. I was very pleased to receive endorsements both from Dr. Stephen Covey, who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and also Tony Robbins, who’s probably the greatest personal development person in the last 40 years.

When Tony Robbins endorsed that book, his endorsement read “Congratulations on your turn around from prison to contribution.” It’s funny that you just used the exact same word because I think that’s a huge part of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then so let’s hear it. You were in prison. You made a decision. And then what happened and how did the sales enter the picture?

Weldon Long
Yeah, well the initial kind of step was that where do you turn this titanic of a life around? I’m 32 years old. I’m a ninth-grade high school dropout, a three-time convicted felon, wouldn’t get out of prison for another seven years. Where do you start? I came up with a master plan to find out what really successful people do and start doing that whatever it was, not reinvent the wheel, not second guess it, just do it.

I started reading. The first book ironically I picked up was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That led to many other books. As I begin to read these books, I remember reading a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche said “We attract that which we fear.” I thought, well that’s just kind of crazy. Why would I attract things in my life I don’t want? I kind of dismissed it.

A couple of months later I’m flipping through a Bible and I come across a scripture in Job. Job says, “Father, that which I have feared has come upon me.” I thought that was really interesting because Nietzsche was an atheist. Job believed clearly in God. Separated by philosophy and thousands of years, but they were saying the exact same thing.

And then I stumbled into a little book called Man’s Search for Meaning written by Viktor Frankl. Frankl said “Fear may come true.” I started thinking about this. Somehow maybe all the chaos in my life is because of what’s in my brain.

So I sat down at the little metal desk in my cell and I wrote down everything I was most afraid of. It turned out to be living and dying in prison, being broke and homeless and impoverished my entire life, never being a father to my son. That’s what I had attracted into my life. My life was a perfect reflection of the things I feared the most. So I’m like, wow, these guys are right. There’s something to this.

I decided initially I’ve got to change what’s in my brain. I sat down at that same metal desk and I wrote out for me, Pete, what a perfect life would look like. I’m an awesome father to my son. I’m wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. I’m a successful writer and entrepreneur and blah, blah, blah, all this amazing stuff.

I took that sheet of paper. I put toothpaste on the back of it and I stuck it to the wall of my cell. There it sat for the next seven years. Every morning when I got up I would read that list, I would meditate on it, I would visualize having that life, being that person. Now I didn’t know the neuroscience behind all this at the time. I was just a guy desperate to do something.

I had read in Napoleon Hill’s book, Think & Grow Rich, he said “Write these things down and imagine yourself already in possession of them.” That was just so beautiful and romantic, imagine yourself already in possession of them. Stephen Covey said, “You can live out of your imagination rather than your past.”

That’s what I started doing. I would visualize that life. I did it for seven years. There’s a lot of neurology behind it, but eventually it changed my thought process, it changed my habitual thoughts.

Seven years later I walked out of the penitentiary. Within five years I had built an Inc. 5000 company. I sold that and started writing books and speaking and training and developing others in the field of business and sales. That’s kind of how the sales thing kind of came to be.

I got out of prison at 40 years old to a homeless shelter, couldn’t find a job. I was very motivated because I had that right mindset after 7 years of telling myself I was going to be successful, but I still was a three-time convicted felon and 40 years old with no work experience. But I got a little job as a salesman. I was really good at it.

A year later I opened my own company. I grew that. Because I built a strong sales organization, I learned so much about sales primarily through books, Tom Hopkins and Brian Tracy and many of whom have become great friends over the years, but at that time I was just a guy in a cell reading their books.

The reason I say that sales changed my life is because it was the sales profession that took a guy like me, a ninth-grade high school dropout, a three-time convicted felon, it picked me up, it dusted me off and it gave me a real shot at prosperity and wealth, at having a productive life.

I’m extremely grateful for the sales profession because as an independent sales professional, if you’re good, you’ll find a chance to make a living. You can build your own business, work for somebody else, whatever, but if you’re good at it, you’re going to make a living regardless of your background. Even a guy like me can have that kind of success in sales.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. Now I understand that in your very first weeks of selling, you were doing awesomely. What was kind of going on there with regard to how you were approaching it differently or what did you do that was note worthily – note worthily, that’s a word – distinct from out of other sales folks that you were just crushing it from the get-go?

Weldon Long
Well I think – actually that’s a great question, by the way. I don’t know that anyone has ever asked me that specific question.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Weldon Long
But it’s a great question. For me, initially, it was pure desperation. I’m living in a homeless shelter. I get this job at a small heating and air conditioning company. I’ve been knocking on doors for six months. I must have had a thousand people tell me no thanks once they found out about my record. But this one guy decided to give me a chance.

I went out my first month. I sold $149,000 of air conditioners sitting at the kitchen table across from mom and pop home owner. And I made over $13,000 in sales commissions.

But what was driving my success at that point was just pure desperation and need. I had a ten-year-old son that was out there somewhere. He was three-years-old when I went to prison the last time. He was ten when I got out. I was driven by the singular focus to get a job, get a place to live, get my son. Right? I was driven by that.

I was good at it primarily because I learned very quickly that good, honest, hardworking people will look you dead in the eye and say, “I’m going to call you next Tuesday,” and then they won’t call you next Tuesday.

I learned very quickly that your best chance of getting the sale is to have your prospect make a decision about you and your company and your products, and your services with you sitting right in front of them, right, because people really don’t want to say no to your face. People like to say no in business and in sales, they like to say no by ignoring an email or not returning your phone call.

And by the way, this is true. You and I were talking before the podcast that in business, we’re always selling something. Maybe we’re selling an idea or selling our boss on promoting us or giving us a raise. The key to those things is to get your boss, get your customer, get that person to make that decision about you with you sitting right in front of them. The probability you’re going to get a yes is way higher because people just tend to say no by ignoring you.

To quote a famous line from Fatal Attraction, “I will not be ignored.” That’s the key, man, making people reach a decision. You’ve got to do your job. You’ve got to build trust. You’ve got to build all the factors in sales and build relationships, investigate the problems, but at the end of the day, the real key is getting people to make a final decision about you and your company with you sitting right in front of them, even if the answer is no, by the way. I tell people all the time yes is best, but no is a perfectly acceptable answer in sales.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Weldon Long
The no’s aren’t going to kill you. What’s going to kill you is the-

Pete Mockaitis
And it frees you up.

Weldon Long
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Once you have a no, it’s like okay, I don’t have to think about that anymore.

Weldon Long
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I can focus my energies on more worthwhile opportunities.

Weldon Long
Amen, amen.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I wonder, so that’s sort of one sort of very specific differentiator is that you prefer to be in person when someone is making the decision about you. Then that kind of automatically tips it in your favor.

So then I guess I’m wondering in the context of hey, selling your boss on giving you a promotion or a raise, there’s some things that need to occur with regard to approvals and consideration, and on and on. How do you play that game? Do you say, “Okay, I’ll meet back with you on this day and you can tell me your decision then?” Is that how you do it or how does it work?

Weldon Long
Well, that’s part of it. I mean the key thing is and in sales and in business, just influence and persuasion, you’re exactly right. Sometimes there can be a process involved. You talk to your boss. He’s got to talk to his boss.

But what I really mean is that before they are allowed to make a final decision, so in the situation you described, you would say, “Okay, I understand you’ve got to go talk to the VP of sales, but I’ll tell you what, just promise me one thing, before you make a final decision, you’ll let me have one more conversation with you.”

You’re getting them that you’re going to be in front of them before they give you the final decision. The key then is, it’s kind of a little five-step process.

Pete Mockaitis
….

Weldon Long
It works in sales. It works in influence.

Pete Mockaitis
One, two, three, four, five. All right.

Weldon Long
One, two, three, four, five. The first thing is to anticipate the objection. You have to anticipate why they’re going to say no.

Let’s say for example you go to your boss and you say, “Hey, I want a raise. I think I deserve a raise.” He says to you, “Okay, I’ve got to talk to my boss.” He goes and talks to his boss. But you get that commitment he’s going to come back and talk to you one more time. Now you’re at that final meeting. You anticipate that the objection is going to be the budget just won’t permit it. You go in with that in mind.

Once you anticipate the objection or the obstacle, the key is then to get them to acknowledge that that particular objection should not be the thing that keeps you from getting what you want. Let me give an example. It will make more sense.

So if I know the budget is going to be an issue, I’m going to go back in and talk to my boss and say, “Boss, I appreciate you taking some time to explain whatever your final decision is. However, before you go there, I just want to ask you a simple question. Would you agree or disagree that my performance has been great the last year.” “Well, of course I agree.”

“Would you agree I’ve been on time with great sales productivity?” “Yes, I would agree.” “Would you likewise agree that those factors are every bit as important as what some arbitrary budget would be relevant to my pay raise?” What’s he going to say? He just told you it was important and you’re really good. Well, of course, there’s other factors more important than just the budget.

Then you’ve got to make your case. That’s the third step. The first step is identify the objection. Get them to acknowledge the objection should not prevent you from getting what you want. The third step is to make your case. That’s where you sell yourself.

“Boss, I appreciate you saying that there’s more factors more important than just the budget. I want to – here’s my attendance record for the last year. I’ve been on time every single day. Here are my sales records, my productivity records. I have the highest closing rate in the division, highest average … division. I make my case. I’m devoted to this company. I’m committed to this company. I make my case.”

The fourth step is to make a specific request. “Boss, I appreciate you considering all this stuff. All I would ask at this point is a simple question. Will you permit me to have this raise that we both agree I deserve?” It’s going to make it very difficult for him to say no because you’re sitting right there in front of him. Even if his boss told him no, it’s going to put him in a situation. Hopefully the big boss gave the middle boss a little authority to make the decision.

But you have to make a specific request for the thing that you want. One of the biggest people – mistakes people make both in sales and just business is they fail to make specific requests. They’ll kind of hint around toward something. They’ll kind of say, “Hey, I kind of like that raise. Heck, I probably deserve it,” or whatever. You’ve got to go in and say, “I deserve this.” You’ve got to claim it.

“What I’d like to do is get your permission to go ahead and get this raise. I’ll go tell accounting myself to change my pay structure.” Make the specific request.

And then the final, the fifth step is if they deny you, you have to remind them of their previous declarations. This is based on a lot of work of a very smart man, Dr. Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University. He’s written several books on influence and persuasion. And there’s a principle he refers to as the Consistency Principle, which is public declarations dictate future actions. What that means is we tend to take actions consistent with our words.

If I ask my boss, in step four I ask to make the specific request, “Can I have the raise?” if he says no to me, if he says, “No, I can’t. It’s just not in the budget,” I’m going to say, “Mr. Boss, earlier you agreed that there were more factors related to my raise than just the budget: my productivity, my punctuality, all those things should be just as important. Has that changed?”

“Well, no, I don’t know if it’s changed. But it’s just a budget thing.” “I understand, but we both agree it’s more than just the budget. I’d like to go ahead and ask you for that raise and to get this thing initiated.”

Now there’s no guarantee he’s going to say yes. Life is about probabilities. But I guarantee you through that little process, I’ve got a much better chance of getting my raise than if I just said “Hey boss, I could really use some extra money,” in kind of a passive aggressive or kind of a roundabout kind of way. It’s about being direct, anticipate the objections, head off the objections, make specific requests. It’s true in sales. It’s true in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yeah. As you laid that out there I guess I’m thinking that the only – maybe not the only, but perhaps the highest probability gremlin that could come up the works it would just be you could call it the budget or just sort of like policy.

It’s like, “Well, a fourth-year program manager earns between X and Y dollars. You know? I know you’re the most extraordinary programmer manager we’ve ever seen in our lives or the history of this organization, but that’s just not how the policies work.”

That’s just kind of one of my pet peeves I guess is when structural policies, rules trump good, sensible thinking. It’s just like, “Well, I guess the policies that you’re going to lose the best program manager you’ve ever seen as I go elsewhere and get compensated appropriately.”

Weldon Long
Right, yeah. I hate policies too. They sound a lot like police to me. It’s – I don’t like it either.

You look at the organizations, they range kind of from the bureaucracy on the far end of one scale. The other end of the scale would be a very creative learning organization, maybe like Microsoft or something like that. The bureaucracy, let’s just take a prison as an example. Right?

The problem is that when you have a bureaucracy, the reason they have bureaucracies is because the people attracted to those jobs – no disrespect to people that work in government agencies or things like that – but they tend not to be the most creative and have the best judgment. And so often what happens is that policies are made to replace judgment because they decided we can’t trust the judgment of the person at the driver’s license bureau.

If you show up in the line and you’ve got to go two windows down, you’ve got to get at the back of the line. The fact that you are having a heart attack is not in the policy, so we’re not going to hurry you through. The policy says you’ve got to go to the back of the line at window number two because we don’t trust the judgment.

You go to a Microsoft, where they trust the judgment, and they have very few policies, right, very few rules. The policies are going to be more intense on the organizations that are less creative and the leadership doesn’t have the trust in the people to make decisions.

But the other point you made is also interesting, that you have a choice in your life. We can control the process of properly asking for a raise. We don’t control the outcome. Right? And that’s about learning to know that you can – you’ve got to focus on what you can control in life. You can’t focus on what you can’t control. It’s a big lesson that I learned. Believe me.

But like you said, at the end, then you have the choice of saying, “Okay, I’m going to find a company that appreciates superior productivity.” And then that’s an individual choice. There’s no guarantee you’re going to get the raise. The guarantee is you probably won’t get it if you don’t ask for it. If you do ask for it, you’ve got a shot because the answer is always no until you ask.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really a good thought in terms of policies replacing judgment and very well said succinctly. It just gets me thinking about how – I don’t know the right way to play this, but I guess if I were the manager who were handcuffed by a policy and then just sort of highlighting this notion, it’s like, “Oh, it’s a shame that this policy is deemed to be superior to your judgment.” I don’t know. You’ve got to tread lightly there.

Weldon Long
Right, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
It just seems like I wonder if there’s a magical turn of a phrase that could stoke just a little bit of righteous anger, like, “You know what? That is ridiculous. I don’t care for that.”

Weldon Long
But you know what? Listen, people like yourself, very creative, very ambitious type people, you don’t want that kind of policy control. Some people actually like that. Some people don’t want responsibility.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s … can be safe and calm.

Weldon Long
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like I don’t …, it’s just kind of handled. Yeah.

Weldon Long
Right. If you wake up and do something in your business with your show, for example, you do something, it’s your responsibility. Some people don’t want the responsibility. If I make the decision according to paragraph three, subsection two A, I’m not responsible because that’s what I had to do.
Some people prefer not to have the responsibility of the consequences of the decision, so they abdicate their judgment in favor of the policy book, the manual.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, thank you for digging into that. I also wanted to get your take on – you’ve got a book called Consistency Selling. I just want to get your take on consistency. I’d say whether we’re talking about sales professionals or any other group of folks, how – why consistency, what difference does it make and how do you develop it when you’re just not in the mood. I don’t feel like doing it. How do you do it anyway?

Weldon Long
Yeah, great question. This was really the foundation of what changed my life was learning how to consistently have more creative, responsible, powerful thoughts. It really comes down to a very simple concept. Consistent results come from consistent activities. Random results come from random activities. That’s true in business. That’s true in sports. That’s true in anything.

If you just do something randomly, by definition you can’t repeat it and therefore if you had a good result, you probably won’t get the good result again unless you do the same thing. You’ve got to do the same thing to produce those results.

When I think about consistency, you really go back to my second book, which was a book called The Power of Consistency. It’s about how do you create a prosperity mindset, a mindset that is geared and programmed to repeat the things that work in your life and consistently produce the good results.

Now, what I did is I developed a program around the acronym of FEAR, F-E-A-R. F is focus, E is emotional commitment, A is action, and R is responsibility. Through those four steps it gives us the opportunity to kind of examine our habitual thoughts. What are the habitual things I’m thinking all the time?

I tell people, you get up in the morning and you start thinking. As soon as your eyes open you start thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking about your family, thinking about your job, thinking about your friends, thinking about whatever. But how often do we think about what we’re going to think about before we think about it. That to me is getting to the essence of our decision making. Where are those habitual decisions coming from?

If I go and have lunch and I didn’t think specifically about what I’m eating and whether or not I’m going to put nutrition or taste as the higher value, if I don’t ever have that conscious decision, I just order something off the value meal, where did that thought come from? Because if I didn’t think what I think about, it came from somewhere.

We have to examine, where are those habitual thoughts coming that are driving our results in life. We’re making a million decisions a day, what I call seemingly inconsequential decisions, that determine our fate.

For example, if I go home tonight and I have an argument with my wife, I have to make a decision about how I’m going to conduct myself. If I make the decision to yell and scream and intimidate, I’m going to define that relationship. If I go home and I make a better decision and I have some love and some patience and some understanding, I have a different kind of relationship.

My relationship is not some random thing that just happened. It’s a product of my seemingly inconsequential decisions about how I react in that situation.

I’ll give another example. I get my paycheck. It’s Friday night. I’ve got the choice. I can go spend it all, have a hell of a weekend or I can save 20%. Well, I reach in my brain, I pull out a decision. If I pull out the save 20%, I pull out a piece of my financial future. If I reach in there and pull out I blow all my money this weekend, I pull out a different financial future.

Twenty years from now, my financial condition is not some random thing that lo and behold just happened to me. It’s simply a reflection of millions of seemingly inconsequential choices that we have made over our life.

Smoking is the perfect example. How long have we known smoking is unhealthy for us in this country? 100 years or so maybe? 80 years? A lot of people still smoke, a lot of good people. Smoking is not a moral thing. A lot of good people, honest, hard-working people smoke cigarettes. But why would people smoke cigarettes knowing what we know about the health impacts? The answer is very simple.

It feels good, right? It’s not a moral issue though. It just feels great. But moreover, smoking won’t kill you today. Whatever impact smoking is going to have is 20 or 30 or 40 years down the road.

But imagine this scenario, take the most avid smoker that you know, but instead of giving him one cigarette at a time, one seemingly inconsequential cigarette at a time, give him a year’s worth of cigarettes at one time, 2,000 – 3,000 cigarettes. Roll them up like a giant blunt and put some fire to it. Smoke them if you got them, pal. Would he smoke 2,000 cigarettes at one time? Of course not.

If you ask him why, he’ll probably say, “Because it will make me sick. It might kill me.” Yeah, smoking 2,000 cigarettes will make you sick and it might kill you, but guess what, smoking 2,000 cigarettes one seemingly inconsequential cigarette at a time will make you sick and might kill you too. It just takes longer.

The key is we’ve got to look at the tiny decisions that we’re making habitually about our food choices, how we interact with the people we love, picking up a cigarette, whatever, and it impacts every area of our life.

Here’s the rub on the whole thing. The FEAR process allows us to examine those habitual decisions, find out where they came from, ask ourselves are they consistent with what I want today and then change hem if we want to change them through a simple neurological process.

I don’t know how much detail you want to go into with the fear process, but it’s actually very simple. In fact, part of the struggle is it is so simple. It’s so simple people will be like, “Well, man, that can’t work,” because it’s so simple. In reality, it can move mountains.

It’s the single most important factor that turned my life around from a ninth-grade high school dropout, three-time convicted felon to a successful writer, entrepreneur and who’s created a lot of prosperity in my life. I didn’t get any smarter. I didn’t get any luckier. I damn sure didn’t get any better looking. I changed my thoughts. I changed my habitual thoughts. That’s what Emerson meant when he said, “We become what we think about all day long.”

Pete Mockaitis
This is intriguing. You take a look and you go through these four steps. Then how do we get a transformation? I guess I’m thinking about if – let’s say I’m having a thought habitually that I don’t care for, what do I do with that?

Weldon Long
Perfect example. Here’s what we do. The first step is focus. The step in focus is very simple. What do you really want? I encourage people to identify two goals in the three main areas of their life: their money, which is their career, their business, their financial future; their relationships, which is your spouse, your kids, your community, your family, friends, whatever; and then your health, your mental, spiritual and physical health.

Those are the three primary areas of anyone’s life: your money, your relationships, and your health. What do you want in those areas? What one or two things do you want in each of those areas?

Once you identify what you want, let’s say you say for example, “I want to make $200,000 a year in sales.” “What two or three things must I do every single sales call, every single day to get there?” Not 10 things, not 100 things because the confused mind says no. What one, two or three things if I did every single day.

You find out what those are. In sales it’s running every call with passion and purpose, learn to diagnose problems and recommend solutions, and learn to ask for the order every single time. If you do those three things in sales and business, you’re going to be successful. You can screw up everything else. But if you do those three, you’re going to be successful.

The next step is the emotional commitment step. I’ve got to get deeply emotionally committed to the income and the things I have to do to generate that income. So you’ve got to write it down in present, current tense and then do what I call a daily quiet time ritual. Ten to fifteen minutes a day reviewing the thing you want, the things you have to do. This turned out to be that little sheet of paper I had on my wall, stuck there with toothpaste.

I didn’t realize the impact of what I was doing, but it was changing the neurology in my brain. I’m not a neuroscientist but I’ve had neuroscientists call me. I had a guy call me one time and said – he was a neuroscientist, a PhD, a clinical psychologist. He said, “Mr. Long, this is the easiest explanation I’ve ever read in my life about the principles that are the underpinnings of rationally emotive behavior therapy and decision making.”

I’m like, “There’s a name for this?” It’s common sense. I’ve got to get focused on what I want, visualize it, it begins to change the brain.

The third step, action. We leverage a very big driver of human behavior, which is cognitive dissonance. If I tell myself I’m going to run every call with passion and purpose and ask for the order every single time, and then I go out on the sales call and I just drop off a bid, I don’t do that, I’m going to feel dissonance, anxiety, the difference between what I said I would do and what I actually do.

That dissonance starts driving the behaviors we want because we don’t want to be in a state of dissonance anxiety. We want to be in a state of resonance. We want to be integrated with our thoughts and our actions.

If I tell myself every single day that I’m going to run a sales call a certain way or if I tell myself every single day I’m going to eat healthy and then I find a cheeseburger in my mouth at lunch, I’m going to experience dissonance. The dissonance drives the behavior, like, “Oh, that doesn’t feel good,” so I order the salad.

And then the fourth step is responsibility. Everybody has problems in life. That’s the bad news. The good news is our life is not a reflection of our problems. Our life is a reflection about our decisions about our problems.

In other words, I had a bad set of problems 15 years ago. I got out of prison at 40 years old without any money, any clothes, any car, anything. But my life today is not a reflection of that situation. My life is a reflection of the decisions I made about that situation.

That’s true for everybody. Everybody’s life is product of their decisions about their problems, not necessarily about the problems themselves. I’m not saying that we don’t have problems that affect us long term because I just met a fellow named Aron Ralston. This is a guy you should get on your podcast, by the way. Do you know who Aron Ralston is? Does that name ring a bell?

Pete Mockaitis
A little bit. Tell me more.

Weldon Long
He’s the guy that got trapped in the Utah desert and had to cut his arm off to get out. They made a movie about it called 127 Hours. This dude is like the most awesome guy you’re ever going to meet in your life. It was amazing. He was there six days before he finally did it.

His life today – you know he’s never going to have that part of his arm again, right? But his life today is not a reflection of that tragedy. His life today is a reflection of the decisions he made about how he’s going to deal with that tragedy.

If you ever get a chance to read his book or watch the movie, 127 Hours, the book was called Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The movie was called 127 Hours. He’s one of the most powerful human beings I’ve ever met in my life, just an amazing story. He’s an excellent example – my life is too on a different type of way – that you can overcome any adversity if you want it bad enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Weldon, tell me, anything else you want to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things.

Weldon Long
Well, I just would encourage your listeners if they want to get more information, we’ve got some free content available on the website at WeldonLong.com. Or they can just text the word ‘videos’ to 9600 and you get three videos of the mindset, sales, and business process, all the stuff that I’ve learned. It’s free content. It’s very powerful information. I think it’s about 50 minutes worth of video content. Just want to make sure people know how to access some of that free content.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Thank you. Now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Weldon Long
My favorite quote is a quote from Henry David Thoreau. And this quote was written on the wall of my cell. It’s on my desk today. It’s one that I use constantly. It’s very simple. “If you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams and endeavor to live the life that you have imagined, you will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”

What I love about that quote is that if you live the life you imagined, that means to me that you had to imagine it first. In other words, you saw it first. Dr. Covey used to say, “All things are created twice, once in our mind’s eye and then in our physical reality.” I just think it’s such a powerful – it’s a beautiful quote. The words are beautiful, but it’s like it’s so poignant because you have to imagine that life first.

The last part of that “you will meet with succeed unexpected,” that means that the success, the results, will be even better than you anticipate. And that’s what happened in my life. Listen, I knew when I got out of the joint the last time, I was doing some cool stuff with my life. I was getting my son. I was getting my act together. I was plowing ahead. But man, what’s happened has been like 100 times bigger than what I expected.

That to me is one of my favorite quotes. It’s just so beautiful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Weldon Long
I would say with respect to research, it would have to be on the theory of consistency. Primarily is researched and discussed by Robert Cialdini. There’s some powerful research that he’s done.

A quick example, there was a company in Arizona that was raising money for childhood disabilities research. They would send in canvassers to knock on doors and ask people to donate money. Cialdini got involved and he kind of redesigned their process. What he did, is – by the way, about 16% of people would contribute money to childhood disabilities research. Somebody randomly knocked on your door, 16% of people would give some money.

Cialdini got the idea of having telemarketers call into those neighborhoods the week before the canvassers. Now the telemarketers did not ask for any money. They would simply take a survey. But one of the survey questions was “Do you think it’s important to do childhood disabilities research?” Of course people say yes. The next week they would send in the canvassers to ask for money.

Their rate of contribution doubled to 38% because people feel an obligation to take actions consistent with their words. It’s powerful, powerful research. I would recommend anybody who’s interested in that – Robert Cialdini – he’s written several books on persuasion and the power of influence and is just probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever read or had a chance to study.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, his books are fantastic. Influence: Science and Practice and Pre-suasion.

Weldon Long
Yup.

Pete Mockaitis
I look forward to the day he joins us on the show.

Weldon Long
Man, he’s a smart dude. Make sure I get an email on that one because I don’t want to miss it.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Weldon Long
I think the thing that helps me the most is what I call my daily quiet time ritual. 10 – 15 minutes reviewing my key priorities, whether it’s my family goals, my financial goals, my health goals.

Life can be pretty hectic. I travel 150,000 miles a year. Literally, this week, for example, I’m in my third city this week speaking. Sometimes I wake up and I literally for five or ten seconds got to remember what hotel, what city, what I’m doing there. Life can be very hectic for everybody: families and bills and jobs.

That quiet time ritual, 10 to 15 minutes a day reviewing your key priorities in life, in other words 10 to 15 minutes thinking about what you’re going to think about before you think about it. It’s the one thing that keeps me grounded. I’m pretty high-strung, but that’s the one thing that keeps me grounded and keeps me sane. There’s nothing more important in my life than reviewing my key priorities every single morning for 10 or 15 minutes.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks?

Weldon Long
I think – I wish I could take credit for it. I used it earlier. Emerson’s quote, “We become what we think about all day long.” I think that that’s super, super important. If people understood the relationship – I wish we had time to go into the neurology behind how a thought translates chemically to emotions, which drives some reaction, which drive a result.

But let it suffice to say that your thought, everything you think, drives how you feel and what you do and what you get, even if what you think is wrong. Even if the things you’re thinking are wrong, they can still drive very real emotions, real reactions, and real results. We call it the self-fulfilling prophecy.

My single most important piece of advice I give to anybody, whether it’s speaking at FedEx to their top 200 performers or speaking at the Nebraska State Penitentiary to a group of lifers, I tell them the same thing: you become what you think about all day long. I wish that were my quote. It’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I love to use it.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Weldon Long
I would point them to social media. They can find me easily there are Weldon Long. Also, on my website, WeldonLong.com W-E-L-D-O-N-L-O-N-G, WeldonLong.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Weldon Long
Yeah, I would encourage everyone to get crystal clear on what you really want. We don’t do it enough. We don’t take enough time. What do I really want? What do I really want with my family? What do I really want with my job, and my income, my financial—don’t just go along and just assume it’s all going to work out. Get very specific.

One of my favorite books is Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill, written in 1937. The very first success habit that Napoleon Hill taught was that you have to have a definite purpose. That’s specifics. That’s focus. Figure out exactly what you want and then start going for it.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Weldon, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you lots of luck and keep doing the inspire that you’re doing.

Weldon Long
Thank you my friend. I really appreciated it. I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.

335: Become a High Performer in Eight (Scientifically Proven) Steps with Marc Effron

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Marc Effron says: "Bigger goals actually do motivate us to perform at a higher level."

Marc Effron shares his extensive research on the eight essential steps to becoming a high performer at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The eight steps to high performance
  2. The difference between goals and promises
  3. How to estimate and achieve your theoretical maximum of effort

About Marc

Marc Effron is the founder and President of the Talent Strategy Group and founder and publisher of Talent Quarterly magazine. He is coauthor of the book One-Page Talent Management and has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Influencers in HR.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Marc Effron Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Marc, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Marc Effron
My pleasure Pete. Happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m happy to have you as well. The first thing I need to hear all about is you and Thai boxing. How did this come about and what’s the story here?

Marc Effron
Yeah, Pete. Muay Thai boxing, I fell into this probably no more than about five years ago. Short story is I’ve always been a gym rat and was in the gym one day and saw these guys doing boxing training over in the corner. I said, “Hey, that looks like fun.” Talked to the trainer, turned out that he’s actually a Muay Thai master.

I had no idea what Muay Thai was, turns out it is a boxing style that the Thais came up with when the Burmese were trying to invade them hundreds of years ago. It was actually kind of a creative way that they discovered to repel the invaders, but now it’s essentially a form of mixed martial arts and turned out to be a heck of a workout.

But also turned out, I found, to be a really good parallel for life and business in that – a very short story – the first three months or so that you train at this, you’re just – you’re kicking, you’re hitting and it’s pretty fun. Like all beginners you think you’re getting pretty good. Then about three months in your trainer takes a swing at you and hits you. You quickly realize, hey, all that kicking and hitting, that’s all theory. When they swing back, that’s practice.

This reminds me of the Mike Tyson quote, “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face.” It feels like that’s a really good metaphor for high performance. It’s all theory until you have to go out there and actually compete. But love it. It’s the best workout I’ve ever had.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Does it also enable you to repel attackers? Have you had a cause to use it under intense circumstances?

Marc Effron
If I find hoards of marauding Thais in my office I will – or marauding Burmese I will use it as best I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, you’re all set. Let’s talk about your office for a bit. Your company is called the Talent Strategy Group. What are you about? What do you do there?

Marc Effron
Sure. This is firm I formed eight years ago when my last book came out, One-Page Talent Management. We help large global companies, the Google’s, the Starbucks, the McDonalds of the world help their teams and their leaders to be higher performers. We work all around the globe. We do a lot of performance management work and training work and all great stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, fun. I want to hear about your latest here, your book, 8 Steps to High Performance. What’s the big idea here?

Marc Effron
The big idea is helping individuals to understand that the path to high performance is actually pretty well proven and that there’s a lot of noise out there that distracts folks, but if we go back to the core science about performance, there’s a pretty clear set of steps. If they follow it, anyone can be a higher performer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well could you in rapid fire format unveil to us what are these eight steps?

Marc Effron
Sure. First one, step one, set big goals. Just what it sounds like, a few really challenging goals. The most powerful science out there says that bigger goals stretch our performance.

Second step, behave to perform. We all want to behave like good citizens, but there a few ways of behaving that are actually going to elevate your performance faster than others.

Step three is grow yourself faster. It’s great to be a high performer, but if you’re going to move forward, you need to become better at what you do and better at the things that you want to do going forward. There are some scientifically proven ways of getting there faster than the techniques that you might normally try.

Step four is connect. This is actually the step that I personally have the most challenge with. Connect is forming great relationships inside and outside your company. Again, the science is really clear. People who do that better are going to be higher performers and move further in their careers.

Step five, maximize your fit. Keep this saying in mind. Companies change faster than people change. Companies change faster than people change. That means that your company’s going to evolve very quickly and the needs that the company have from you are going to change over time. You’re going to need to pay really close attention to where’s my company going and what are the different needs it requires for me to be a high performer going forward.

Step six, and this is the one where we hear a lot of noise is fake it. Fake it means that the genuine you, the authentic you, might not always be the you that your company needs to see and that sometimes you might actually need to fake some behaviors you don’t fully feel comfortable with in order to be successful.

Step seven, commit your body. There is great science behind a few things that we can do around sleep primarily, but also we’ll talk a bit about exercise to make sure that you are primed for a high performance.

The final step, step eight, avoid distractions. What we mean by avoid distractions is there is a lot of noise, a lot of fads out there, think of them as the get rich quick schemes for high performance that sound too good to be true. They are. We call out in the book some of the most common ones you should avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, thank you. Now that’s – so many of these are so intriguing and it’s – I’m thinking about prioritization. Maybe I’ll give you the first crack at it. Which of these steps do you think provides kind of an extra leverage or disproportionate bang for your buck or return on the effort you put into trying to take the step?

Marc Effron
Sure. It really is step one: set big goals. Now as fundamental as that may seem, there are a few things that are helpful to know.

One is there is incredibly strong science that says things like bigger goals deliver bigger results, meaning we’re hard wired to respond to more challenge with more effort. Pete, if you say, “Marc, jump a foot in the air. I’ll give you a dollar.” I’m going to try and jump a foot in the air. If you say, “Marc, try and jump two feet. I’ll give you two dollars,” I’m going to try that. If you say, “Three feet, three dollars,”

I’m going to keep trying to do more as long as the reward seems to equal the challenge, so If you say, “Jump four feet, but you still only get three dollars,” I probably won’t do it or I’m too physically exhausted to respond to the challenge. Bigger goals actually do motivate us to perform at a higher level. That’s step one.

But then focus those goals. You can’t have 20 big goals. You’ll kill yourself. But you certainly can have three. Especially at work, the key thing is to understand what are the few things that really, really matter to my boss, not to me, to my boss. What are the three big things that he or she really wants to see me deliver this year and align your goals with his or her priorities.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. I think some bosses would have a hard time limiting themselves to three. They’d say, “I want 15 things from you, Marc. They’re all super important.”  Then some, I’m thinking about our previous guest, Bruce Tulgan, with the crisis of under management, I think some might not really know in terms of “Well, we’ve got to keep things moving and going and operational.”

Any pro tips in terms of having those conversations effectively with your boss to really land upon the big three?

Marc Effron
Sure. Well, let’s say your boss goes too high, meaning “Hey, Pete, you have ten things to do, why are you asking me about three?” “Well, boss, I’m going to get all ten done. Don’t you worry about that. But if there were three that you think I should really, really get done to the highest level possible, which would be the three that you think are most important this year?”

Any type of prioritization at all, reassuring your boss, “Hey, I got it. I’m going to make sure everything gets done.” But your boss very likely has a few things that she or he wants you to ace this year, mainly because it’s going to make them look better. Reassure them that you’ll get them all done but ask them for some prioritization.

If they go too low meaning they say, “Well, Pete, show up and do a good job and work hard,” then ask questions like, “Hey, I’m absolutely going to do that, Marc, but what are you working on this year? What are the few big projects that are on your goal list?” “Cool. Are there any things that I’m doing right now that I can align better with the big goals that you have to achieve?”

Now this also gets into a bit of step four, which is connecting well with your boss. There’s nothing wrong with making your boss look good and goals are a great way to do that. “Boss, what are you working on? Hey, I want to make sure you ace those few things, how can I best help you to do that.”

If they go too high, ask them to help you to prioritize. If they go too low, maybe start with what’s most important to them given what they’re working on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s helpful there. You talk about making promises in this section of the book. Is there a distinction between a goal and a promise and how to think about that?

Marc Effron
Yeah. It’s easy to dismiss that as kind of a cute word trick, but I do think there’s a different emotional component between the two. I can say “Hey Pete, yeah, I’ve got a goal for this year. I’m going to try and do X.” That’s much different than saying, “Pete, I promise you by the end of 2018, I will have achieved this.”

One sounds a lot more serious. Hey, we try to achieve goals, but how many people like to break their promises? Part of it might be a bit of a Jedi mind trick, but it really is just kind of increasing the emotional component of what you’re saying around those goals.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. It’s interesting it almost sort of – yeah, there’s definitely more sort of commitment or intensity, almost anxiety. It’s like, “Oh crap, what if I don’t do deliver. Ah.” It’s kind of spooky when you use the word promises.

Marc Effron
Exactly. You don’t want to disappoint someone by not delivering on a promise, but goals, we almost think, well, yeah, of course you make some goals, you don’t make some goals. Well, hopefully you deliver on most of the promises that you make.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so then your suggestion is that you articulate that verbally or do you write it in the performance management system or a document or review between boss and direct report or how do you recommend these get kind of captured and worked upon.

Marc Effron
Yeah. First of all, if your company has a way of doing it, start there. A lot of those ways are bureaucratic and annoying. If your company doesn’t have a way of doing it, then write them wherever you’re going to see them. Write them on the front of your desk, put them in your phone, wherever it’s going to stay in front of you that there are three big things that I’m trying to get done.

Again, you’re going to have many, many distractions. You have 100 things to get done during the year, and you’re going to need something that helps to reinforce for you, “Hey, these are the three big things that I promised and that are likely going to differentiate whether I’m seen as a high performer at work or not.”

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious then, yeah, when it comes to selecting them, we talked about making the boss looked good, aligns to what’s most important to them, and then makes you look great in terms of it distinguishes you in terms of you being perceived as a high performer.

Any other pro tips in terms of dos and don’ts for selecting these goals? I guess one of the tricky things with goals or promises here is that often there’s – your control is somewhat limited. You have to rely upon other collaborators internally or consumers/customers/clients responding favorably in a marketplace. How do you think about that angle of the promises?

Marc Effron
Sure, I think there’s a fine line between challenges and excuses. Customers come and go, economies get better and worse, people cooperate and don’t cooperate. I think part of it is when you’re setting that goal, identify what are the few key things I’m depending on – that I depend on will happen to allow me to achieve that goal.

It might mean that Suzie needs to deliver on project X in order for me to complete that. Okay, cool. Then you’d better help Suzie get project X done. It could be just a big assumption. “Hey boss, I’m assuming that client Y is going to continue buying our product as they always have. If they don’t, we’ll need to come back and renegotiate that goal.”

Part of it is just understanding what are the variables that are going to either allow you to make that goal or to make that goal challenging. The ones that you can control, put a plan in place to control them. The ones you can’t control, then it’s fair if they change to go back to your boss and say, “Hey boss, I was supposed to sell a hundred widgets to that company. That company doesn’t exist anymore. Let’s talk about what my new goal should be.”

I think it’s a line of saying, yeah, there are lots of bad things that can happen, probably best to identify those things that you can control in advance and work hard to control them and just be aware of the other ones as early as you can.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, excellent. Thank you. I’d like to get your take then on behaviors. What are some of the – real quick, some of the best and the worst?

Marc Effron
Sure, well I think that there’s a challenge for a lot of leaders who hear either through books or through their HR group that great leadership behaviors are what makes somebody successful.

Well, the scientists claim great leadership behavior makes somebody a great leader and that’s cool. But there’s also really good science that says there’s a set of performance driving behaviors that doesn’t mean that you act like a jerk, but it means you don’t necessarily spend as much time kind of engaging with your team. It’s all about how do I get higher performance.

Each of those styles might be appropriate at different times. If you are with a company owned by a private equity firm, they have extremely high demands for how your company is going to grow and perform, you might just need to drive high performance. Many people respond very positively to that.

On the other hand, if you’re maybe with a more long service organization, has a more gentle culture, you might really need to spend a lot of time in the care and feeding of your staff.

Either of those are perfectly fine ways of behaving but each of those is more appropriate for one situation than another.

The first step would simply be look at the situation that I’m in, what is the company valuing most from me? Do they value that I get things done the most? Do they value that I am a great leader, grow my teams, support the culture most. First step is really understanding what does my company need from me.

Ideally, your company can tell you, “Hey, we either have a leadership model or a behavior model that give you some guidance.” The challenge with those is they tend to be eight or 10 or 12 things that are all lovely behaviors, but don’t give you a lot of focus.

If your company does have one of those models, I really think it’s helpful to go to your boss or talk to high performers in your company and say, “Yeah, these are eight or 10, 12 really cool things, but what are the two that really, really matter around here? What am I going to get noticed for if I do or in trouble for if I don’t do?”

Again, focus is going to be a key theme on high performers, that’s focus on the big promises, but also focus on the few behaviors that matter most.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re saying then that this really varies organization by organization. Have you zeroed in on some universal best practices associated with driving performance and results?

Marc Effron
There are a few things that are going to make you successful in every environment. One is building the quality and performance of your team. Quality meaning are you increasing the capabilities of the people on your team. Are they more skilled and more capable at the end of the year, than they were at the beginning of the year due to the assignments and the experiences and the challenge that you’ve given them?

You can certainly have people deliver great results and learn nothing. That doesn’t add a lot of value to the company.

Step one is are you building the quality of those leaders by giving them big, juicy challenges that are a bit scary, that stretch their skills that cause them learn so at the end of the year, you have a team that is higher quality than others. Developmental behaviors are going to be ones that are going to be valued everywhere.

To the theme we’re talking about, just classic performance driving behaviors. All of the things that we talk about in the book applying to yourself, are you applying those to others, especially starting with those big goals. Are you challenging your team members to do more, but in a focused way?

So not simply I need ten percent more than last year, but what are the few most important things and how can I stretch you to what we call your maximum theoretical performance.

We introduce this concept in a book. It actually comes from weightlifting. Very simple concept. If you go to the gym and you’re going to lift some weights, what would be the theoretical maximum amount of weight that you can lift if everything was perfectly aligned, meaning if you had been actively training, if your diet was great, if you felt good that day, the gym was the right temperature, if everything was perfect, what would your theoretical maximum performance be?

Now average Joe or Jill goes into a gym, they can lift about 60% of theoretical maximum performance. If you’re a bit of a gym rat, you’re there all the time, you’d probably do about 80% of your maximum performance. Science says that Olympic athletes typically do 93 – 94% of their theoretical maximum performance.

Apply that same concept to work. Most of us show up, we do a really good job, we put in a lot of effort, but what would your theoretical maximum performance be. What would you have to do to perform at that level that is just optimum, that you know that you are giving everything that you have in both performance and behavior standpoint?

A good manager is going to work with their team members to say, “Hey, I know you’ve got more in you. Let’s figure out how we can help you be an even higher performer and have a very clear plan around that.” All the way back to the beginning, more quality, more performance.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious to know both for weightlifting and for professionals doing knowledge work, how does one establish what the theoretical maximum is?

Marc Effron
Well, I – I think there are a few ways of doing that. One is if you follow the eight steps that we talked about earlier, you’re certainly going to be going in the right directions because each of those is scientifically proven to make you a higher performer.

But I’m also a fan of simply saying double your standard. Whatever that standard is for great, what would double that standard look like? Doubling that standard probably takes you from about the 50th percentile to closer to the 100th percentile.

That means looking at things like “Hey, I had a great year last year, what would it actually take for me to double that performance? What would it take for me to double what I’ve delivered? What would it take for me to double how quickly or how much I develop? What would it take for me to double the engagement of my team members?”

It feels like a very unreasonable standard, but back to the science around setting big goals, it is amazing how much clarity you will get and how much you will stretch your mind around your own performance if you simply ask yourself that fundamental question. What would it take to deliver twice as much as I do today? The answer can’t be work twice as hard because that probably actually won’t get you there.

But thinking across between my goals, my behaviors, my network, even my sleep, what else could I do differently that would actually allow me to get to that point?

Pete Mockaitis
You’re saying that doubling is a pretty good benchmark rule of thumb for that is likely in the ballpark of possible and the maximum theoretical there?

Marc Effron
Yeah. I think what it’s going to do is it’s going to – if you say double, you’re probably defining your theoretical maximum performance. Is it possible that most of us can double in a year what we did the last year?

It’s going to be a pretty stiff challenge, but it’s going to really clarify your thinking around “Well, what would I have to do to move my performance most aggressively in a better direction,” because you’re not going to think about incremental solutions like, “Oh, I could take a class or maybe I’ll meet a few more people and network.” But really what would the big steps be that are going to have a meaningful difference on your performance?

Pete Mockaitis
I like it. I find it – I guess in a way it’s somewhat arbitrary, but if you think about it, a 5% boost, that’s like “Oh, I’ll just work an extra 23 minutes or whatever in a day,” versus I hear people talk about 10x’ing it, which sounds really cool and exciting, but it just sort of often just leaves me frozen, like, “Wow, I have no idea how I would 10x it.”

But doubling, I don’t know, it’s working for me because I think it sparks ideas for me, like, “Oh, well, I’ve got to stop wasting all this time with this,” or “I’ve got to find a way to automate or outsource or delegate that particular thing which is low value, but to free up more time for this other thing.” Then suddenly it’s like, “Oh, well, that’s not so impossible. That just requires X dollars and a great person and away we go.”

Marc Effron
Yeah. Focus drives performance. It is amazing. I think you really seized on a great point. If I’m going to double what I do, there’s a bunch of stuff I really enjoy doing that I might need to stop doing. That’s part of the tradeoff of being a high performer. I have stuff here at work that I love doing and my team looks at me and says, “You really shouldn’t be spending your time on that.” I guarantee you, I would be a higher performer if I stopped doing some of those things.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you tell us what are some of those things?

Marc Effron
Oh, I like to think I have a sense of graphic style and I annoyingly provide helpful advice to my team about how email should look and graphics should look and decks should look. They’re so appreciative of my constant advice to them, but they’ve told me that maybe I could dial that back just a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure. Yeah, I …. Cool. Talk to us a little bit about the faking it notion, presenting a different version of yourself deliberately and what that’s all about.

Marc Effron
Sure. Here is the challenge. People respond very negatively when you say, “Hey, you need to kind of fake things at work,” especially because there’s been such a trend over the past five years or so to be our authentic selves and our genuine selves.

That’s lovely, but the science says that showing up as your genuine self all the time is probably not going to be the right strategy for high performance because the people around us actually need to see different you’s at different times. If your primary concern is how can the genuine me show up 24/7, you’re likely going to miss a lot of opportunities to interact with people in the way that they actually need you to interact with them.

Plus, what we find is that if you say, “Hey, I’m always going to be my authentic self and never change,” there are actually opportunities, there are times in our life when we’re going to need to show fundamentally different behaviors that we just might not feel comfortable with and faking those behaviors until either you become comfortable or just faking them to be successful are going to be critical.

An example, leaders tend to exist in one of two states meaning we start to off by being what we call an emerging leader. An emerging leader is somebody who needs to really show that they are there. They need to wave their hand around a bit. They need to call attention to their work because if they don’t do that, no one is ever going to understand that they’re a high performer or a potential high performer.

Some people are decidedly uncomfortable calling attention to themselves. They believe good work stands for itself. I’ll get noticed eventually. Well, no, good work doesn’t automatically get noticed and people don’t know people who quietly do good work.

If you are uncomfortable doing that, it’s important to recognize science is really clear if you don’t call attention to yourself, you’re not going to get noticed. Fake it for a while. Again, you don’t need to be an arrogant jerk, not that extent of faking it, but there’s nothing wrong with raising your hand in a meeting and offering a suggestion. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out to your boss the high quality work that you’re turning in. You might need to fake that behavior.

The other side of being an emerging leader is being an effective leader. Effective leaders are more established. They are – they have their team. They are a little bit more mature in their career. Effective leaders are going to empower their team, they’re going to be good managers, a bit more humble.

If you’re someone who loves calling attention to yourself, you might need to fake that. You might need to sit on your hands instead of always raising them in the meeting. You might need to cover your mouth instead of being the first person to respond to every question.

Being – faking things a bit allows you to be the ideal person to show up in each situation, to show up as you’re needed, not as who you think you should be. Faking might sound bad because we think, “Well, I’m authentic and that would be being inauthentic.” Well, no, what it means is you’re going to behave in a way that is most appropriate to be a high performer in that particular situation.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. The examples that you’re using there for faking it really don’t feel so frighteningly inauthentic. I guess adapting to circumstances and challenges as they emerge and doing what’s necessary is just kind of part of the game. It didn’t even occur to me that that would be being inauthentic.

I think I’ve had to fire someone before and that was very uncomfortable. I don’t like that. I like to believe in people and their possibilities and their growth and development. Then at some point it’s like this really isn’t the right fit and okay, here we go.

I guess I didn’t think of that as violating myself or being inauthentic. It was just more like, “Hm, what is required now is not something fun and comfortable for me.”

I guess – I think other people think about authenticity in terms of like if they want to have purple hair or a huge beard or almost like fashion expression sensibilities. Yeah, could you maybe unpack some extra examples of things that we might need to let go of when you’re expressing our genuineness or common places where it’s needed – it’s necessary to adapt?

Marc Effron
Sure. I would say on the look and how you present yourself, my view is that’s a great place to be authentic because I think that shows your personality.

But let’s take an example of oftentimes I’ll speak with people who will need to be up on stage in a presentation and they’re nervous. “I’m just not that person who gets up on stage and does that. I just can’t turn on being” – so their genuine you is very afraid being kind of a public speaker.

I tell those folks, “Look, I am a massive introvert, but you know what no one wants to see up on stage? Someone staring at their shoes.” I have to fake it up on stage and I’ve got a lot of good people that are in my mind when I’m faking being an extrovert. Is it the genuine me? No, it is not the genuine me, but guess what? I fake it pretty well.

For a lot of folks it’s simply recognizing that you don’t have to restrain or constrain what you do because there is some authentic you that sets boundaries around how you can behave.

You can say, “Hey, you know what I’m going to do at that next party even though I’m a massive introvert? I’m going to fake extrovert. I’m going to walk into that room saying, ‘I’m the biggest extrovert in the world.’ What would a big extrovert do in this room right now?”

Either you’re going to be at least moderately successful, if not maybe a bit more, and you actually might get a really good round of practice in at being more of an extrovert and find that you’re building some skills around it.

Part of authenticity is stop putting boundaries on your own success by saying, “Oh, that’s just who I am.” No, who you are is whoever you feel like being at that moment. Learn how to fake it. It’s amazing how much progress you can make.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot in terms of rejecting the constraint of “That’s just not who I am,” and being able to adapt there. And I liked the instance of you imagining what being extrovert is like.

We had Srini Pillay talk about what he called psychological Halloweenism, which is quite a turn of a phrase, which is just that, like “Hey, I’ll just put on a costume. I’m going to be this person and see how that goes because it will be very helpful to be this person in this context.”

Marc Effron
Part of is just our fear of risk, our fear of embarrassment, but again, most of us really overestimate how much people pay attention to us. We write about that in the book. Most of think that everyone is always looking at us and always judging us, but actually  we’re noticed far less than we think.

The odds that if we go to a party and we have one awkward conversation with one person, that that’s somehow going to spread like wildfire through our social community, probably not the case. You can probably take a risk.

The science is also very conclusive that people are pretty tolerant of us failing in social situations in ways that others have failed in social situations, so people essentially empathize.

Yeah, it’s tough to walk up to somebody new and have a flawless and fluent conversation. If that person isn’t doing that perfectly with me, I’m not going to think “What an idiot.” I’m going to think, “Hey, they’re kind of getting used to being a bit more of an extrovert.” People are actually largely forgiving in those situations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Well, now I saved the most controversial for last. I want to get your take on your final step there was avoiding the distractions of what you call unproven fads and in that category you put grit, power poses, emotional intelligence and strengths. Now, a lot of people love this stuff. What’s your take on this overall?

Marc Effron
Well, here’s the challenge. There are – and we outline in the book – there are really clear scientifically proven steps that will make you a higher performer.

The challenge is that as consumers of information, which I’m sure the folks on the podcast are, you get information thrown at you every day that says you can be a higher performer if only you do this. Because most folks aren’t industrial or … psychologists, they probably aren’t sorting those marketing claims through a very skeptical lens and so something that sounds pretty easy and pretty straightforward, they may be likely to do.

The challenge is some of those things will kind of do no harm, but most of them are going to really waste your time and distract you from doing the things that actually will drive higher performance.

Some of my favorites are focusing on your strengths. Don’t focus on your strengths. Here’s the challenge. Gallup has sold millions and millions of books. They have sold I think 18 million strength finder assessments.

Focusing on your strengths is a great way to continue to be good at things that you’re already good at. If you say, “Hey, I’m in my job, I just want to be really, really good at this job. I don’t want a different job. I don’t want to move up,” in that case, cool, focus on your strengths. You’re going to be great.

But the challenge is that the strengths that we need over time will change in our career, so if all you do is focus on today’s strengths, you are never going to have the strengths necessary for the next job and that there’s really great science that says things like we don’t have as many strengths as we think we do.

If you define strengths as being in the top ten percent of something, actually most of us don’t have that many strengths and a lot of science that says the strengths that we do have don’t necessarily align with what our company needs.

Something like focusing on your strengths sounds really easy, “Well, yeah, why wouldn’t I do that? I’m good at some stuff and the stuff I’m not good at, it’s really annoying to work on, so wow, it feels like there’s a really easy path to success. I’ll just focus on my strengths.”

Unfortunately, the science is clear that the people – people who advance most quickly in organizations, are the ones who actually trim the negative tails. “Here are the things that are actually holding me back. My strengths will take care of themselves. It’s the things that I don’t do well that are going to drag down my career.”

The challenge is we have things like that that sound really attractive, that are presented in a compelling way, and there’s a bestselling book, but there’s just no science that says that it works and there’s lots of science that it probably won’t work as well as other techniques.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. When it comes to the strength stuff, I think this kind of reminds me of maybe any number of sort of health and fitness claims in terms of you can broadly declare something as good or bad, but really I think there’s more sort of nuance to it.

You look to the strengths approach in terms of trying to find how that compares to or correlates to rapidly accelerating, climbing, being promoted, and rocking and rolling in an organization. You say that the data just aren’t there to support the strengths.

However, Gallup will say – I’ve got it up here – people who use their strengths every day are three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life, six times more likely to be engaged at work, 8% more productive, and 15% less likely to quit their jobs. None of those results are climbing rapidly into bigger realms of responsibility. 8% more productive is nice.

That’s intriguing. I’m kind of putting together what you’re saying with what they’re saying and it seems like strengths have some value, but it ain’t necessarily getting you to the top of the pyramid quicker.

Marc Effron
Absolutely. I guarantee you and completely agree with Gallup that if you focus on your strengths, you will be happy at work. Absolutely. If your goal is to be happy at work, focus on your strengths. Great solution. If you want to be a high performer at work, then it’s probably not the right way to go. You probably want to focus on big goals, changing your behaviors, and the other eight steps that we outline.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool, thank you. Tell me, Marc, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Marc Effron
I think we’re on a roll. Let’s keep going.

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Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Well tell me about a favorite quote, something that inspires you?

Marc Effron
Let me go high and let me go low. I’ll give you two. One, we’ll start with Wolfgang Goethe, the German philosopher. He had a quote, “Doubt grows with knowledge.” “Doubt grows with knowledge.”

I think that we should all become more skeptical the more we know about something because you’ll probably find that a few things in whatever area are true and to what we’re just talking about, when things come along that sound too good to be true, they probably are. The high end quote would be “Doubt grows with knowledge,” Wolfgang Goethe.

The low end quote would be from the famous philosopher Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who said, “The wolf is always at the door.” I think that is a high performer’s mindset, “The wolf is always at the door.” You have to have this mindset that everything could hit the skids tomorrow, so what am I going go to do today to make sure that I’m extremely well prepared for success.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Marc Effron
Not to bore the listeners too much, but I’m a big fan of setting big goals. There’s great research out there, classic stuff by two really brilliant professors, Gary Latham and Ed Locke, about how goals drive performance that we talked about earlier. Just really kind of rock solid science, not light reading, but rock solid science.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Marc Effron
Marshall Goldsmith. Many of your listeners probably know him. You might have even had him on a podcast. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Bestseller New York Times, Wall Street Journal.

Just a great book to help all of us understand that we’re going to need to evolve and change through life and at the moment we rest on our laurels we’re dead. What Marshall does wonderfully is just kind of pick apart all of our wonderful excuses for why we behave, how we behave, and really convince us that it’s probably smart to let go of those excuses and figure out a more successful way to behave across your life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Marc Effron
I had trouble thinking of this. One – a big fan of all my hardware and software, but I probably use – this is not a plug – the Delta airlines app more than anything else. I’m on the road 70% of my time and that app is open almost every single day, so they do a good job for me and that’s probably my favorite tool.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite habit?

Marc Effron
Favorite habit. I found out many years ago that working Sundays is very productive for me. It started off because I was in business school and doing worse than 98% of people and realized I needed to put in some extra effort and so started hanging out in the library from 9 AM to 9 PM on Sundays and realized you can get a lot done when nobody else is around.

Since that time I have worked not every, but three-quarters of Sundays in the year. One because it’s really quiet and my brain needs that to get stuff done, but also, if I’m working six hours a week more than other folks, that’s probably going to add up over time into something good.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with listeners?

Marc Effron
Probably two things. In fact I was looking at on the Kindle copy of the book things that have been underlined the most. Two things seem to stand out.

One was just the definition of a high performer because that’s probably never been put out there before. I define that as “a high performer is somebody who’s performance and behaviors are sustained at the 75th percentile over time against your peers,” meaning you are always better than 75% of other smart people doing the exact same thing that you do. That’s one.

The other is just this concept we talked about earlier of theoretical maximum performance. How good could you be if everything was working in perfect concert?

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Marc Effron
I would send them to our website. They can start with The8Steps, that’s The8Steps.com. It talks all about the book. Or if they want to learn more about our organization, TalentStrategyGroup.com, tons of articles, videos, lots of other cool resources.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Marc Effron
I would go back to what we talked about earlier. Just think about what would it take to double your own standard for great performance. A know a lot of your folks listening right now think, “Hey, I’m a pretty good performer.” I’m sure that’s true. What would it take to be twice as good as you are now? I guarantee you that will give you focus and motivation to do much more than you do today.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Marc, thanks so much for taking this time. It’s been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best and much success and high performance as you do what you do.

Marc Effron
Thanks Pete. I enjoyed the conversation.

324: Strengthening Your Focusing Abilities with Adam Gazzaley

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Adam Gazzaley says: "We can only take in a very limited amount of the information around us."

Adam Gazzaley takes a deep dive into the brain, why we don’t have the ability to do everything at the same time, and the technologies that will help how your brain functions and focuses.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The strengths and limitations of the human brain
  2. Three focus levers that you can learn to control
  3. Mindfulness practices that train attention

About Adam

Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D. is Professor in Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry at UC San Francisco and the Founder & Executive Director of Neuroscape, a translational neuroscience center engaged in technology creation and scientific research of novel brain assessment and optimization approaches. Dr. Gazzaley is co-founder and Chief Science Advisor of Akili Interactive Labs, a company developing therapeutic video games, and co-founder and Chief Scientist of JAZZ Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in experiential technology to improve human performance.

Additionally, he is a scientific advisor for over a dozen technology companies including Apple, GE, Magic Leap and The VOID. He has filed multiple patents, authored over 125 scientific articles, and delivered over 540 invited presentations around the world. He wrote and hosted the nationally-televised PBS special “The Distracted Mind with Dr. Adam Gazzaley”, and co-authored the 2016 MIT Press book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World”, winner of the 2017 PROSE Award. Dr. Gazzaley has received many awards and honors, including the 2015 Society for Neuroscience – Science Educator Award.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Adam Gazzaley Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Adam, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Adam Gazzaley
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve been so excited to have this conversation ever since I heard you on Brett McKay’s Art of Manliness podcast. First of all, I’ve got to know, you said in that show, “Stay tuned to 2018,” because you were working on creating the first prescription video game or digital medicine. Where does that stand today?

Adam Gazzaley
Well, we have advanced. At the very end of 2017, we, we being Akili Interactive, which is a company I spun out from my research at UCSF, we announced that we had positive outcomes on our FDA phase three trial that was targeting improvement of attention abilities in children diagnosed with ADHD.

That’s the big piece that we were waiting for to then go ahead and submit to the FDA. That process has just happened. This is a medical device pathway. It’s the first of its kind for this type of treatment. It would be the first non-drug treatment for that condition, for ADHD. We don’t know exactly how long the process takes, but we’re in it now, so hopefully not so long.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Congratulations.

Adam Gazzaley
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Since I just jumped in there, maybe you can back it up a second. What is the game and how does it make an impact on brains?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah, so maybe I’ll take even one more step back. The idea behind building a video game as a digital medicine really popped into my mind after years of research in neuroscience and as a clinician and neurologist back in 2008. It’s been ten years ago that I started on this pathway that was just sort of reaching this really major milestone now of FDA approval.

The concept is that we can engage our brains at a very high level and a targeted experience. This experience can be adaptive, what we call closed loop, meaning it’s challenging you and giving you rewards at the edge of your ability. It’s pushing you. It’s doing this based on your real-time metrics, your performance, your physiology.

We can use this type of experience as a way of optimizing the brain networks that it activates. That was the general idea that I had.

We built a video game called NeuroRacer. Back in 2008 we started the process. I designed it. Brought in friends from LucasArts to help us develop it. Then we did multiple years of research really showing that we can improve older adults’ ability, which is where a lot of my research background had been focused on, improving their ability to pay attention on very, very different tasks and to also hold information in memory.

That was published in Nature in 2013 and also with neuro-recording showing the mechanisms in the brain that led to that improvement in attention. Then that led to the birth of Akili, a patent behind the technology, and now multiple clinical trials as well as the phase three trial for ADHD treatment that I just described to you. That’s the journey.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool. That is cool. I want to get into the journey and your book, The Distracted Mind and practical things that professionals can do to be less distracted and have more great focus.

Maybe could you start us off by sharing – you wear a number of hats all at once these days – could you share a little bit of the story and thread that ties together your professorship, Neuroscape, Akili Interactive Labs and JAZZ Venture Partners, all you’re up to?

Adam Gazzaley
Sure. It does seem and it could give the impression that I’m spread thin given that I’ve co-founded several companies, a venture fund, I’m the director of a research center, and a professor at UCSF. I’ve written books and I give a lot of talks, but the reality is I feel like I do absolutely one thing.

They’re all related to each other. They’re all built on the premise that technology can be developed in a thoughtful way with the goal of improving how our brains function.

That could be for people that are healthy and just want to improve their concentration and their memory. It could be part of what we would think of as education, young developing minds on a more positive pathway than we currently see happening. Then, of course, as a type of medicine, which we’ve already been discussing when people have deficits.

The companies that JAZZ invests in, where I’m a partner, the companies I formed like Akili, another company Sensync, a newer one, what we do at our research center in Neuroscape, all of it is built to accomplish that goal of having our technology, our non-invasive, consumer-friendly both from affordability and accessibility point of view, do more than entertain us and allow us to communicate, but actually enhance what makes us human and really improve our brain function.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So much to dig into there. When it comes to brain function, it seems that your brain is functioning pretty prolifically in terms of geez, hundreds of presentations, a hundred scientific articles, and multiple … all at once. Do you have a personal secret for how you’re pulling this off? What’s sort of the key behind this?

Adam Gazzaley
Right. One of the keys is what I said. I really do feel like I have only one thing that I do. I don’t have lots of different voices. It doesn’t matter what podcast I am on or what audience I’m speaking in front of. I have one message. I have one way of presenting it. I have one goal.

I always say to especially my lab here when we hire new people or take on new projects that I have one tree and I’m willing to have more branches, but I’m not willing to have a second tree. A lot of it is just figuring out where is that tree, what is part of the core of my mission and where I want to direct my attention. I think that’s one thing that allows me to seem very productive.

I am accomplishing a lot of things, but it’s all in the same framework. When I watch someone else do things that seem really disparate than each other, it just boggles my mind how they hold that all together. That’s one of the things.

Then I’m really passionate about it. I found something that I absolutely love. I wake up thinking about. It’s what I’ll talk about in a bar with friends. It’s just – it’s my life.

I’m always encouraging young people that I might mentor and advise that that’s the secret. That’s what they have to find. If they’re not doing it now, they have to look elsewhere because it will always come back and haunt them if they passed up or miss that opportunity to find their true passion in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s dig into some of the takeaways here. You sort of unpack a number of these discoveries and practical applications for a popular audience in your book, The Distracted Mind. What’s sort of the big idea behind the book?

Adam Gazzaley
The book, The Distracted Mind, is sort of a little bit of a mash up between myself as an author and Larry Rosen as an author.

I’m a cognitive neuroscientist. I work in a laboratory where we do functional brain imaging and look at how neural networks underlie different performance metrics like attention and memory abilities, and how interference degrades those abilities. I study really the neural mechanisms of interference through distraction or multi-tasking.

While Larry is really like a field psychologist. He’s out there looking at what real world things, like Facebook and having mobile phones on your bodies might impact your relationships, and your school performance, and things of that nature.

That’s the overview that we try to show. It’s like a deep dive into what’s going on in the brain, why we don’t have the ability to do all the things we want to do all at the same time. It takes a very evolutionary perspective on that.

I sort of dug deep into optimal foraging theories and other views that I think connect our evolutionary path of what has grown in our brains that are strong and what are its limitations and how – then how technology impacts us, largely in a negative way, although the very end of the book is the prescriptive part, how can we change our behaviors to interact with technology in a healthier way.

Neither Larry or I feel that the path is to just abandon it. I always say we’re not putting that tech genie back in the bottle. It is here. How do we live with it in a better way? Then, of course, what I already had told you about, is how do we flip this story around completely. How do we think about technology as a tool to actually help how our brains function and the future of where we can go with that?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Then let’s talk a bit about the brain fundamentally. Where is our human brain strong versus limited and what do we do with that information?

Adam Gazzaley
I’d say one of the main strengths in many ways defines us as human, it might be the pinnacle, the most unique thing that our brains are capable of compared to other animals is the setting of very high-level goals. Goals that are very time delayed. You could set a goal a decade in the future. You can have goals, even immediate goals that are interwoven with other goals and other people’s goals.

That type of ability I think is fundamental for all of the achievements that we have as a species, our communities, and our societies, and our languages, our art, our music, our technology, really depends upon that.

These goals, they also challenge us because they lead us to believe we’re almost capable of anything and we are not. We have the flip side of it is that we have these very fundamental limitations in how our brain works.

When it comes, especially to the abilities that enable us to enact our goals, so our attention, our ability to focus it and sustain it, our working memory, holding information in mind for just very rapid periods of time, and then how we deal with having multiple goals that converge in terms of enacting them, how we either switch between them or multitask them.

When it comes to these abilities, what we call cognitive control, which sort of wraps an umbrella term around all of those concepts I just mentioned, they’re limited. In many ways when you push other animals to behave in the way that we do, to multitask and to engage in such a way, you see that we have actually really similar limitations.

[12:00]

We can focus our attention, and even there the filter is not perfect, but we also can’t distribute our attention broadly. We can only take in a very limited amount of the information around us.

When we try to hold information in mind, what we call working memory, there’s a degradation in the fidelity of that information that occurs very rapidly. When we attempt to multitask or switch between tasks, we see that there is a cost for that type of goal setting and enactment.

We do not engage in two goals that both demand our attention as well as if we have only one. That’s because the networks in the brain that are responsible for each goal, they can’t parallel process. They have to switch between each of the tasks you’re trying to engage in and with each switch, there’s a loss of some of that information resolution.

That’s the sort of the premise of the book, that there’s a disconnect between what we want to do, our goal setting, and what we’re capable of doing, our goal enactment. That’s what leads to interference and leads to what we refer to again and again as the distracted mind.

Pete Mockaitis
That really sums up kind of the whole, in many ways, human condition in terms of – I remember when I first learned economics in high school and we talked about how they call it the dismal science because we have unlimited desires but finite resources. It was like, yes, this is already my whole life. I’m very intrigued to learn more about this field.

It connected. It resonated. That applies not only to the use of time and money, but in fact just what we can put our brain toward.

Adam Gazzaley
Exactly. When it came down to writing this book it was actually a challenge for me because I had sort of moved on from the distracted mind story to my new research focus, which is how do we use our understanding of the distracted mind to build tools to help our brains, make them less distracted. It’s sort of almost like a step back into my history of my research.

But when certain ideas I was able to formulate, like the one I just described to you, other ideas around foraging for information and how it compares to how other animals forage for food, then it felt fresh to me and I was excited about writing that in the book. I think for the most part it’s all pretty logical.

Most people in many ways could sort of just introspectively appreciate these things in their own behavior. But it is – I think it’s helpful and has value to break it down, especially from the neuroscience perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to then dig into some of this in terms of how can we have more cognitive control to achieve what we want sort of day in and day out. Where do you think is the best place to start in terms of setting some foundation? Should we talk about foraging theory or should we start elsewhere?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah, yeah. I can give you a little bit about foraging theory. It can get pretty heady and long, so we can do it briefly. The reason I bring foraging theories – optimal foraging theories into the book in the first place and into these discussions is because I’m not – I don’t fancy myself as a self-help guru that I could just throw out things that I tried in my life and encourage other people to do them.

Adam Gazzaley
The idea was that if I was going to present prescriptive advice about how people should engage in healthier behaviors with technology, I wanted to do so from a conceptual framework and use that to guide the advice.

The framework is really based on how we as humans forage for information in a similar way to how other animals forage for food, that the primate brain has coopted a lot of these ancient reward systems, but instead of being for survival, they are for information. There’s a lot of data to support that.

If that’s true, if that premise is true, then could we use the models that describe why other animals forage in the particular way that they do? Can we use that to describe why we engage with technology in a very particular way? Then use that as a basis to say, “Oh these are the areas that we can change our behavior.”

The model that I use is known as the marginal value theorem. It describes how animals forage in patchy environments, like a squirrel in a tree eating acorns or nuts. The resources they have are in a limited space and there’s these empty areas in between those resources.

When a squirrel is in a tree, they’re making an unconscious decision about the benefits of remaining in that tree even though the nuts are getting less and less as they eat them. They’re comparing that with how close the nearest tree is full of nuts. At some point they make the decision to switch and jump from one tree to the other.

I’m creating a comparison that we’re sort of like those squirrels. Our patches are information patches like your mobile phone or a web browser or Facebook. You can stay in there or you can leave to the next one. The influences that drive us to stay and leave are related to how we’re consuming those resources in the patch we’re in now.

One of the premises I make is that we’ve shown, and there’s data to suggest, that we are now accumulating boredom and anxiety, both anxiety of fear of missing out on something else and also performance anxiety, very rapidly. We have this very rapid diminishing return of remaining in a patch, an information patch.

There’s also this force that other patches, those other trees which are links on a website or another browser tab or just having your phone in your pocket, the other information sources are so accessible, so it’s so easy to abandon the one you’re in and just move over to the next one.

That those forces of boredom and anxiety making our enjoyment and our satisfaction of being in an information source last longer as well as the accessibility to the next one, drives this tendency that we all have to just rapidly switch between them and not really engage in a sustained, continuous way in one information source.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Then first I want to talk about the squirrels if I can.

Adam Gazzaley
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Now when we study squirrels that are engaged in this activity, do they in fact behave in a mathematically optimal sort of a way? It’s like, “Yup, that is indeed the perfect decision to jump to that next tree, squirrel. Well done.”

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah, so the marginal value theorem, which is used by not neuroscientists, but more ecological behavioral scientists, have shown that they are able to mathematically predict the behavior of many animals, both in laboratory settings as well as in the wild. That field is really interesting.

There’s other types of behaviors like predator to prey relationship. There’s other optimal foraging theories, but this particular one, the marginal value theorem, is about animals foraging in patchy environments. It has been shown, it’s not perfect, there are factors that influence it that are not always predictable, but it is a pretty interesting field of research.

We don’t have the mathematical relationships of how the marginal value theorem applies to how humans forage for information. It’s essentially a hypothesis in the book that I thought maybe would set up research in that particular direction. But I think it does go a long way, at least intuitively, of explaining why we are so susceptible to this rapid switching behavior that we engage in, especially children.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, well because I guess accessibility has just gone through the roof in recent years as compared to where it was before. But are we also seeing trends in terms of we are more easily bored and anxious now than we used to be?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah. The data would suggest, and this is sort of the story we put together in The Distracted Mind, that all of those forces are taking place. They’re both on different sides of the equation.

One is on the diminishing benefits we get of being in a source are not just that you’re using up the information in that source, like a squirrel using up the nuts in the tree, but these very human factors of increasing anxiety and boredom.

You could experience that yourself if you just try to do one thing, which is one of the advice that I do give for a while, you could feel anxiety of not doing something else or checking in on a post or just, “Wow, I’m bored,” accumulate pretty rapidly. This has been well described, especially children feel these forces to a very high degree.

They become very noticeable when you remove their technology away from them. It’s part of the reality of how we interact in the world now. I think it forces us to lose a lot of the control that we want to have over our technology. It is essentially is exerting control over us.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. That idea of being able to stick with something for a long time, it’s intrigued me for ages.

Once again, in high school I remember I always impressed how we did marching band camp. For two weeks, somehow 100 plus of us would endure the pretty hot summer Illinois days for eight plus hour stretches day after day after day.

I just thought, “Wow, it would be so powerful if I could just do this myself,” whatever I wanted to learn or improve or accomplish, whether it’s hunkering down to write a book or whatnot. Yet, it’s so difficult. I guess there’s a whole other element associated with accountability and looking like a slacker if you say, “No guys, I’m out,” which is a lot harder to do in a group setting than individually.

But so how can we sort of work these levers in terms of engaging things so that we are more engaged and interested in what we’re doing, we feel less anxious about what we might be missing out on or we have less accessibility to pull us in another direction. Actionably, how can we pull these levers to do more great focusing?

Adam Gazzaley
That was the reason why I went to this path of using a foraging model in the first place so that we have a framework now. We see the influences. On one side accessibility drives us to another source that’s easily obtainable. On the other side, our boredom and anxiety causes us to want to leave the source that we’re in. Those are three levers right there that you can learn how to control.

Accessibility is in some ways a little easier because it’s less abstract. You can just sit down, quit your email program if you’re writing an article, quit Twitter, put your phone on airplane mode, close your door, work in a less distracting environment and really create the type of surroundings that foster a singular focus, where it’s just not accessibility.

I know people that will put their phone in their bag when they drive home from work because if they have it in their lap, the accessibility will make them go to it even when they’re at a light.

If you feel that accessibility is really pulling on you, which I think it is for many people – I mean I feel it myself. I could be there writing an article and if my email program is open, subconsciously I just go over to it and look. Not that I need to look, not that anything pinged me. I was working just fine, but because it was so easy I just sort of reflexively took a look at it or an open Facebook page.

I do quit those programs when I’m writing on something. I think managing accessibility is a real very tangible one that people can wrap their hands around.

The other side of it, decreasing the anxiety that you feel of missing out on things or not being productive because you think productivity is doing a lot of things at the same time, as well as boredom.

To me the first step of those – of dealing with that is to just put yourself in the situation where you decrease accessibility, do one thing and actually feel those emotions, that anxiety, that stress, that boredom accumulate, and just wrap your head around what it is, become a little bit more introspective and realize that it’s not going to kill you.

It’s fine to be bored. It’s fine to be a bit hungry. It’s fine to be a bit anxious. And that these feelings are – they don’t need to necessarily be corrected immediately.  You can allow them to just sort of bake in a little bit and you might find that they go away after a while.

I always sort of make the parallel between sitting down for an hour to do one thing, like going out and running a mile let’s say. The first time you do it, it could be unbearable. You can be like, “Wow, I never want to run again,” but over time you actually get a pleasure and reward in doing that one thing. All of the negative aspects that accumulate really rapidly when you’re not used to it start going away.

I would say that these other tricks and apps and ways that you could sort of have people not text you when you’re doing something else so that decreases the anxiety. In the book we talk about lots of fancy tricks of dealing with anxiety and boredom, but the one that – the easier one to talk about that I think is a good start is to just put yourself in a scenario where you experience it and just learn how to manage it.

Even waiting on line at a supermarket – I’m in Whole Foods and I have only two minutes to wait and I still feel the allure of pulling out my phone and checking something. Just leave it away. It’s okay. Just feel a little boredom. Just maybe do some internal thinking or looking around. That’s I think a good starting point.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, you mentioned tricks, I can’t resist. Can we hear the tricks too?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah. There are basically ways of using technology to help as well.

One of the things that we recommend and others have as well is when dealing with the anxiety of missing out is to have people be aware, for example, when you’re driving or when you’re working so that you don’t think that there’s texts and other communications coming in when you know you should be focusing.

People do similar tricks like that at work, where they’ll put up a sign of ‘do not disturb I’m focusing,’ of that nature.

The other trick that’s less tech, but it’s really about – it’s about breaks and especially true for boredom is instead of going an entire hour, try and go ten minutes and take a minute break and then go right back to ten minutes and work through the hour in those segments. This way the boredom and even the anxiety could be relieved by that break.

But the trick – and then each day you could make – now go 15 minutes, 20 minutes. Learn how to do 20 minutes with just two breaks along the way. But one of the tricks of this approach is to not take tech breaks, especially social media or email in those short breaks because then they could just take you through these sink holes where just an hour later you’re like, “Wow, I just totally failed there.”

The types of things I that I think help especially with anxiety and boredom when you’re taking those breaks are like some meditation and mindfulness to get better at that type of internal focus, exposure to nature, even light physical exercise in your office, wherever you are. Those are things that can help fill those breaks. Then you just bounce right back into your singular focus.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. I’m thinking here just in my experience like if I’m on vacation, I feel so much better having the out of office email reply up and going than not going just because it’s sort of like, “Oh, that’s handled. They know.”

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
They’re not expecting anything from me. They even have other resources they can turn to to get whatever they’re asking about in that.

Adam Gazzaley
Exactly. That’s a perfect example of using technology to reduce that anxiety. That anxiety is really strong when you’re on vacation. There used to – there was a time in the past when vacation meant that you were actually completely inaccessible and not actually working. That’s gone.

Many people are still communicating with their work every single day and they feel that anxiety that even a short period away is going to be incredibly disruptive. But as you described, there’s a way of structuring your time when you leave your work environment or study environment that is set up to give you success and actually disengaging from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I also just like the little bit about the boredom lever here because sometimes I just marveled at how I could hunker down and play my favorite computer game from 1993, Master of Orion, for like six hours straight, but then I’ve got sort of an email inbox backlog and I have never successfully been able to crank at it for six hours in one day. I think my max is like three and a half. It just – the boredom is I guess overwhelmed me.

One tool you mentioned, just practice, train it. Get better like you would in training for a marathon. Is there anything else we can do to somehow find excitement and engagement in the things that are currently seem boring to us?

Adam Gazzaley
It could be really challenging. I’m not going to claim that you could turn email into the most fun activity in the world.

Video games are a hard thing to compete with. They are designed by very clever people to have reward cycles at multiple different time scales that really keep you engaged. They’re doing exactly what email doesn’t do frequently, which is mix it up and challenge you at a high level and give you constant feedback on how you’re doing.

This is one of the core challenges. It’s really hard to compete with a lot of modern day media that is designed to appeal to people because of these rapid reward cycles.

Sure, you can do things to try to gamify doing email and compete and things of that nature, but personally, I don’t really feel like they work that well.

I would – how I’ve done it myself, it’s always easier for me to describe what I do myself, is really just to learn and to retrain that ability to sustain attention and not be totally derailed every time you try to do it.

Like anything else, like going to the gym, running, it takes practice. It doesn’t necessarily come the first time. You have to work through it and just get better at it. Don’t try to bite off too much and then just be completely disillusioned.

The boredom goes away when you engage in something. Then you might find that, “Wow, I actually am liking doing this.”

Maybe it’s not email, but certainly having a conversation with your significant other as opposed to interrupting it every three minutes to check your phone or writing an article that you’re really excited about or reading a book that you do find engaging. You can get more enjoyment out of it if you just train yourself to sustain your focus for a longer period of time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. We talk about training, you mention mindfulness and meditation. Are there some other – what would be sort of your top recommended practices in terms of – I’m thinking about learning about some Buddhist practitioners who stare at a wall for months and you’re like, “Wow, that’s really impressive.”

Are there particular mindfulness practices or can we play some of your video games or what are some of the other kind of activities we can engage in to strengthen our capacity here?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah. The basic practice of concentrated meditation doesn’t require a lot of fancy tools. It’s where you learn over time to focus usually on your breath. It could be words. It could be a visual image in your mind. Hold the focus. Be aware when your mind wanders and without judgment just bring it back and hold it again.

That’s like one of the most ancient practices. It appears in many, many different forms of meditation and has a long history of success in helping with attention but also stress and mood. It’s quite valuable. Essentially at its core it’s an attention training exercise.

Some people have difficulty with it. They might be pushed to do too much and feel like they don’t get it, they can’t find their breath.

We actually designed a video game. That’s what we do. We take principles from other practices that have benefits in the real world, like meditation, like rhythm and music, physical fitness, then we build algorithms that can allow you to baby step into it so that it’s adaptive to how good you are at it. You’re getting feedback on how you’re doing and you can extend and improve your performance gradually over time.

We did that with meditation. We have a game called Meditrain that we’re writing up our first paper on our results right now showing that we have been able to improve sustained attention abilities in Millennials, in 20-year-olds engaging in this app for six weeks.

We’re super excited about it. It’s not publically available yet. We’re very conservative with how we release things into the market. We want to know that it actually does what we say it’s going to do. We’ve been working on this for many years now. The data is quite convincing. These are some of the things that you can do right now and that will be coming out soon.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Now are any of your games available for the public to do now and how can we get there or they’re all not yet there?

Adam Gazzaley
They’re all not yet there. This is sort of one of the more frustrating points. The one that’s closest is the ADHD treatment, which I hope arrives in 2019. Maybe by the end of this year. We’ll see. The process is unclear because it’s a new treatment, a new device. But that will be the first to arrive.

That is clearly, as I described, the medical route. It will be a prescribable treatment by doctors to children that have ADHD. The only thing right now that’s – the only thing that will be FDA approved that’s not a pharmaceutical or drug, so very exciting.

It doesn’t mean that all of our technologies are going to go down that medical pathway. For example, the meditation training game I’m now looking at other companies that build more consumer facing meditation and mindfulness apps as partners so that’s happening now. Hopefully next year you’ll start seeing things that we’ve been working on for a decade start appearing in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Can we also touch on exercise for a bit? There’s many forms of exercise: yoga, high intensity intervals, steady state cardio, strength training. Are there any particular exercise interventions that seem to go farther in molding the brain to make it able to focus for longer periods?

Adam Gazzaley
Well, most of the data on how exercise improves attention and cognitive abilities more broadly, focus on aerobic exercise, sometimes high intensity interval training, sometimes just long endurance aerobics training. The data is quite convincing, especially in aging, in older adults and even in children as well.

There’s lots of great data, many meta-analysis that have put together results from many different papers to reach that conclusion, but there’s also data about strength training as well that’s often frequently ignored. I would say both strength and aerobic training.

I’m not as familiar with the literature on yoga, but more and more researchers are exploring these practices, as I said, that have been around for a long time and are training to put them in more randomized control trials.

I would even just add one thing that with older adults even the act of just getting out and walking has been shown to be beneficial as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Adam, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Adam Gazzaley
I think that is it. I guess I always like to sort of conclude this part of the discussion by saying there’s a lot of things you can do as far as lifestyle changes that are shown to be good for your brain. I put it into five pillars.

Physical exercise, we just talked about that. Cognitive challenge, we’ve been talking about that, some of the things we’re creating. But just the types and way of engaging in the world around you that push you out of your comfort zone. Travel, learning music, even complex social interactions, which also has the benefit of reducing isolation and loneliness, which is also not good for your brain.

Physical challenge, cognitive challenge, nutrition, sleep management, and stress management. By stress management I don’t mean the elimination of all stress. Our brains and our bodies actually like some stress. The challenge is what it responds to, pushes it into a more dynamic phase, but it’s that helpless, chronic stress that really induces damage in the brain that should be avoided.

While you do those things in your daily lives, we’re working on technological implementations that aren’t meant to replace them, but just act as tools to help optimize abilities that might not be potentially optimized otherwise.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Adam, now to open up a whole rat’s nest. You said nutrition. Could you give us the one minute do’s and don’ts on nutrition for the brain?

Adam Gazzaley
Sure. Nutrition is as complicated as it gets when it comes to research because the types of randomized control trials that are easy, not necessarily easy, but very doable with pharmaceutical drugs, more challenging to do with video game treatments, but doable – we’ve shown that now – are even more difficult to do with nutrition.

Those randomized double blind placebo controlled trials are hard to pull off. There’s not a lot of data. We’ve constantly seen as professionals, health professionals, change our recommendations, which I think a lot is due to this challenge that I just described.

But the data, at least on the aging perspective of living long, not just long, but long well with a healthy brain, I would say the data is strongest for the Mediterranean diet, so nuts, legumes, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, even red wine finds itself on that list.

Trying to maintain that more whole food diet, which I think probably a lot of your readers already locked into this type of advice. I would say that’s where the strongest data lives.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Adam Gazzaley
I have a quote that I actually came up with that some of my friends like to share back to me at certain times, especially when I might not be following it is as much as I should. I once said, “All of life is a celebration of life.”

I do think it’s a good reminder because many times we’re always sort of seeking this like peak experience that is like the culmination of what you’ve been working for. You tend to sort of just drive right by all the little wins and all the little joys that happen.

I experience that as well. But I do try to pull myself out of that pattern and really just celebrate it all, all of life. That’s one that I try to keep dear and close to my heart.

Pete Mockaitis
From all your research, do you have a study that is a favorite or something that comes up again and again, either your own or from someone else?

Adam Gazzaley
Probably our most – definitely our most cited paper is our Nature paper in 2013 where we showed that our video game improves cognitive control in older adults.

I would say the other paper that I am really proud of that helped influence my career a lot, including The Distracted Mind, was a study I guess like 15 years ago now showing that when older adults have senior moments, what they feel like are memory challenges, they’re really attentional in nature. They’re more attention driven than memory per se specifically.

Even there the attention is not that they’re not focusing on what’s relevant to them, but they’re not ignoring or filtering the irrelevant information.

That attending and ignoring are not just two sides of the same coin. If you focus more, you’re not necessarily ignoring more. You can be focusing – and we found that six-year-olds focus like 20-year-olds, but where they fail is the filtering of irrelevant information.

When that gets in through the fortress gates, it creates interference with what they’re trying to remember and creates this degradation that’s experienced as these sort of memory losses.

I quite like that work. That study set off a whole series of studies showing more and more detail what was going on neutrally when these suppression deficits occur.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Adam Gazzaley
I mean I really was incredibly influenced by books that were written in the ‘50s by Isaac Asimov called The Foundation series. It’s sort of in my mind the birth of science fiction.

I read a little bit of science fiction every day pretty much around the year because I – it pushes me to think about the future and outside of the box of what we’re experiencing right now. I feel like I go back to The Foundation every several years, read it again because it just sort of set the pace for how you look into the future in a way that’s not just about technology, but really about humanity.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool, something you use that helps you be awesome at your job?

Adam Gazzaley

I have to say I use tablets a lot. I think I use them more than most people do. I use them in the gym. I use them on flights. I find it less burdensome a lot of times than laptops and more accessible than my phone. That’s something that I use for notes, for my calendar reminders. Yeah, I think that I probably engage in tablet use more than most people.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite habit?

Adam Gazzaley
I mean the habit that I’ve been doing since I’ve been 17 years old is going to the gym pretty much every day. I do a bit of aerobic exercise and a bit of weight training. I’m completely addicted to it.

When I don’t do it, if I’m just travelling and can’t and I even do it on the road, I don’t feel just the physical effects of it, but the entire full stack, like from the concentration to my mood and so I would say that habit, which has its burden – I’m a little bit of a slave to it – has much more benefits. I would say that would be the one.

Pete Mockaitis
Adam, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Adam Gazzaley
That’s a fun one for me to answer because I have lots of entities as you just – as we talked about. But around just a couple days ago I finished putting together with my wife’s assistance – she’s an amazing web programmer – a website Gazzaley.com, so just my last name dot com.

There I sort of aggregate all the different things in my life from nature photography and wine making to all the things that we already talked about. That’s my new home base online.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Adam Gazzaley
I think that the challenge is really to get to know yourself better. It sounds trite maybe, but it’s a process. It doesn’t come for free. It takes time and patience and honesty. But it goes a long way.

It’s not the full distance that you could go with just insight. You do have to have a plan and a strategy and work to break habits, but it is something that I have found really valuable to get in the practice of understanding how your brain is working and why you do certain things.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, Adam, this has been such a treat. Thank you so much for taking this time and the great stuff you’re doing in the world. I’m looking forward to playing your games when they’re available. Just wish you all the best of luck.

Adam Gazzaley
Thank you so much. It was nice talking with you.